Bethany Cagnol on Organizing an ELT Conference

By Tara Benwell
Bethany Cagnol

Bethany Cagnol, TESOL France President

Bethany Cagnol is an English language teacher in France. She is the TESOL France President and IATEFL BESIG Treasurer. She recently organized the 30th annual TESOL France Colloquium.

Tara: Before we discuss the latest TESOL France conference, tell us a bit about your journey to France. I understand that you moved to Paris after graduating from university in America.

Bethany: I moved to Paris as soon as I was handed the degree, but that was because I had met a Frenchman, who eventually became my husband. Before we met I hadn’t even imagined myself moving to France. Staying there during the summer sure! Like in Pagnol’s “My Father’s Glory” and “My Mother’s Castle”. I just love the film versions. But for the first four years of living in France I tell ya, I could have used those subtitles.

Tara: Well, that sounds like the perfect training for a woman about to dedicate herself to the ELT industry! I first heard the name Bethany Cagnol via your blog about freelance teaching. How did your freelance teaching business help prepare you for your role as TESOL France President?

Bethany: This might sound scary, but I had wanted to become TESOL France President as soon as I was introduced to the association in 2006. But back then I had no leadership skills or experience. So I turned to my local Toastmasters club (an association that develops public speaking skills) and gave being president a test run before joining the TESOL France Executive Committee.

The freelance business came later and matured along with my experience at TESOL France. Interestingly, being a freelancer did not teach me how to delegate. Self-employment put me in a position where I had to handle everything myself and I’ve had to learn how to delegate responsibilities to other members of the team.

Tara: Tell us a bit about the TESOL France organization. How often do you hold events and workshops?

Bethany: We’ve grown considerably over the years. We hold teacher workshops almost monthly on various subjects. We organize a professional development day in the spring and a three-day conference in November. We also have branches in Grenoble, Strasbourg, Toulouse and in 2012 in Lyon and Ile de la Réunion. What’s remarkable is how much we can do on such a tight budget. We’re the only association I know of where members, speakers, poster presenters, and stand representatives don’t pay a conference registration fee.

Tara: That is remarkable! I’m sure the speakers and members truly appreciate that. In the blog posts about the 30th annual TESOL France conference that just passed you have been called a wonder woman and a legend. All of the attendees and speakers have been commenting on how well organized it was. Do you have any secrets you want to share with future organizers?

Bethany: I get so emotional when I read those posts! It only makes me want to continue and keep bringing my friends and colleagues together to attend our events.

The TESOL France team is a very special and unique one. The hard-core committee members, Debbie West, Eric Halvorsen, Gillian Evans, Laurence Whiteside, Ros Wright, Jane Ryder and I have been organizing events together for almost three years. We do depend on the help of many other dedicated volunteers, but the seven of us work so beautifully together that we could run another three-day conference with our eyes closed.

We’ve learned how to handle high-stress situations and conferences definitely top the list! When the event hits a snag, many teams can panic without knowing how to react. We’re just the opposite. No one wastes time complaining about the incident or pointing fingers. On the contrary, we hop to it and work as one to solve the problem calmly and professionally (especially if we are in front of other delegates or speakers).

Sure, we can turn to each other to vent, but we wait until the problem has been solved. And we keep it within the walls of the team. We don’t let the problems spread further to give all the delegates the impression that the conference was hiccup-free.

Tara: By the sounds of it, you make it look easy, but what is the most difficult part about organizing a TESOL conference?

Bethany: That’s a really good question. To be honest the administration after the conference can be challenging. There’s a lot of housekeeping to do the day after (ensuring publisher stands get picked up by the right delivery guy, registration and budget follow up, feedback forms, attendee certificates, etc.) and all you want to do is fall into a deep coma. The second hardest thing is keeping track of all the emails from speakers and delegates. Communicating with speakers is a major priority. We want them to feel as if they’ll be well taken care of before and during their stay.

Tara: How do you go about finding a good balance of speakers? Do you typically have more applications than required or do you have to recruit speakers to fill up your sessions?

Bethany: There are a few ways we do this. First, we sponsor committee members to attend a few conferences in Europe to scout for talented speakers who we then encourage to attend our conference. Second, we decided to do away with a specific theme and open up the conference to all areas of ELT. This was such a good idea because it doubled the number of abstracts we received. Now we get over 100 proposals for about 60 speaking slots. We also learned from IATEFL’s proposal format: asking for an abstract, bio and a 250-word summary. And finally, our conference committee is extremely good at choosing talks that will appeal to TESOL France audiences.

Tara: Speaking of audiences, you are known for being one of the most humorous figures in ELT. How important is fun when it comes to running an event like this? (I read that you were fired from one of your first teaching jobs because your students were having too much fun!)

Bethany: I got my goofiness from my mother. She and I have shared so many anything-goes moments that being nutty just comes naturally. Ever since I was fired from that one job I’ve been careful to gauge the level of fun that my students are willing to reach. I crack jokes during every lesson though. I learned that from a professor at the University of Virginia, Walter Ross. He had to teach one of the most boring courses, Music Theory, and he made it fun by inserting “brain breaks” throughout the lesson. He would stop at random moments and say the strangest stuff just to see if we were all listening or help us focus back on the lesson. He said things like, “Did you kids know that I can say ‘I am a pencil’ in 15 languages?” And he would do it for us! He was brilliant!

Staying positive is absolutely crucial when running a conference because all sorts of ____ will be thrown at you at the last minute (you should have seen what we went through the Friday morning before this year’s conference started– I thought I would die!). Moreover, the whole team needs to have a positive attitude toward the goals and outcome of the conference. Be ready for hiccups at all times, but don’t forget to step back and enjoy the success of the event.

Tara: I was watching the opening of the TESOL France conference from home and I noticed you got a little choked up as you introduced your plenary speaker. I felt like I was really in the room because I knew so many of the people who were actually there. What tips do you have for conference organizers in keeping the online community involved in conferences like this?

Bethany: Putting talks online is a very new concept for us! We streamed sessions for the first time in TESOL France history just 5 months before the annual conference at our June Day on Professional Development. We turned to IATEFL for help in order to use their Adobe room. We are still looking into how we will continue this initiative, but it’s pretty exciting! For instance, I would really like to set up TESOL France Webinars next year and some volunteers have come forward to help us with that. I would suggest other conference organizers set up a strong online presence before the conference takes place (Twitter, Facebook) and keep it active with updates to inform the followers of what’s going on behind the scenes in the weeks that lead up to the event.

Tara: Great advice! It’s amazing how much you can get out of a conference when the attendees are tweeting. What was the highlight of this year’s TESOL France conference?

Bethany: It was introducing the plenary speaker, Stephen Brewer. He’s such a talented and dedicated teacher and researcher and also a very very dear friend. I don’t know anyone who worked harder on their PhD than him, and I wanted nothing more than to have him share his work on self-efficacy with teachers in France. I will be singing Stephen’s praises for a long time to come.

Tara: Many of the attendees said that Stephen Brewer’s talk was one of the highlights, so it sounds like he really got the conference off to a good start. Is there anything that you learned from this year’s conference that you would do differently next year?

There are dozens of tiny details we’ll refine next year. If we decide to stream talks again we’ll set it up earlier and run some tests before the event. Also, I would really like to video record more talks and add them to our website. We will definitely invite Andi White back to help us with the YouTube interviews during the event.

Oh yeah, and I think we’re going to bring back the masseuses.

Tara: The YouTube interviews were great, and it would be really nice to see some more next time! Now that you’ve let us in on the post-conference workload, I’m even more thankful that you found the time to take behind the scenes so soon after your event. Keep up the great work!

Connect with Bethany Cagnol
Bethany’s Blog

Written by Tara Benwell for November 2011
Tara Benwell is a Canadian freelance writer and editor who specializes in materials for the ELT industry.

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