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Tips for people attending TESOL conferences

This article was inspired by “See You at the Coffee Stand”, an article by occasional TEFL.net book reviewer Darren Elliot in English Teaching Professional magazine Issue 59 (November 2008).

1. Make/ take some business cards

These are worth having even if it is just to save you having to write down your name and address every time you want an inspection copy from a publisher, and are even more important if you need to do some serious networking. Unless you really aim to impress, business cards printed at home on special card for your printer serve the purpose just fine.

2. Get out and get some air

I find this is what I most need to enjoy the next session. This is especially true for the session after lunch when most people feel sleepy, so as a non-smoker the best thing is to get entirely out of the building for lunch or at least for a coffee. I also tend to take a longer route back to the conference venue in order to see more of the local area and to stretch my legs a little before I have to sit down again. This does mean missing out on some networking opportunities, but bringing back your half-finished Starbucks coffee can be a great conversation starter with the person sitting next to you in the next session, which leads me onto my next tip…

3. Check out the local area

I usually do this by arriving early the first day and taking a deliberately round the houses route to the conference venue. This allows me to find out where the local eateries and coffee shops are, but also to appreciate being at the conference in non TEFL terms too as it allows me to see an area of the city that I haven’t seen before or haven’t been to for ages. I have even been known to go to where the conference will be a few days before to find out where it is and combine that with some sightseeing. If not, I try to wander round the local area when the session is finished to see if there are any interesting little parks, temples, churches, boutiques etc that I might never have seen otherwise.

4. Take a break

This is so stolen from Darren’s article that I couldn’t even think of a different paragraph title! I agree that taking a session in the middle off can mean you take more away from the conference than if you had tried to cram even more in, and would also add that rewarding yourself for a hard day’s conferencing by having a bit of a lie in and so a shorter day on Sunday can be very motivating too.

5. Do what you’d usually do at the weekend during the week instead

As much as I love conferences for the ideas I get, the people I meet and the freebie books I pick up, I have often spend the next week too tired to appreciate any of that and feeling like I didn’t have a weekend at all. Now I know to make sure I find time to do my usual weekend gym session in the week instead and to get my ironing for Monday done on Friday night. If you rely on a weekend lie in to get you through the rest of the week, try to achieve the same thing with an early night or just arrive later one day as suggested above.

6. Treat yourself

Either at the end of your first day or when the conference has taken up your entire weekend, treating yourself like one of Pavlov’s dogs with a bar of chocolate, haircut or Belgian beer will mean that you will unreservedly look forward to the next conference.

7. Leave the book stands till later (or till everyone else is in a session)

This is because at the beginning the book stands tend to be busy and so you are less likely to get chatting to the publishers’ representatives (you never know, you could say something to them that would change the future of ELT publishing!) and because arriving on the second day to see that there is nothing new on the stands to make it worth being back can be a bit of a downer. The main exception to that tip is if you are uming and ahing about going to a workshop that is tied to one particular publisher or other organisation with a stand, when it might be worth checking out any books by the person who will be talking, asking for more information from the people on the stand, or even talking to the speaker if they are hanging round.

8. Mix up the topics

Even if phonics is your thing, the third workshop on that topic isn’t likely to go in as well as the first. Something completely different, even if totally unconnected to the classes you teach now, has a lot more impact because it can surprise you or even introduce you to a totally unknown world. Because most of the ideas will be unfamiliar, it will also be more likely to shake up your ideas than something you already know a lot about.

9. Choose good speakers (whatever they are speaking about)

This is also a tip stolen from Darren (at least I thought up my own title this time!), so I guess the best way for me to add something is to add my recommendations- Scott Thornbury, Andrew Wright, Grant Trew and Michael Swan are the ones that instantly spring to mind.

10. Take plenty of notes

This will keep you alert, will give you something to refer back to when it comes to be time to do something with that information (see below), and will also make the presenter feel good that you appreciate what they are telling you. Looking at how many notes you have taken in each workshop can also be a rough and ready way of judging which workshop you found most worthwhile and so which one is worth reading through again or giving your own school workshop on.

11. Go through your notes afterwards

This will help your retention of what you have been told, and the simplest way of doing this will also save you cluttering up your house. That method is just deciding what bits you want to keep and chucking the rest- a tip that can help you remember even the things you threw away as at least you processed the information one more time and formed a personal reaction to them. The next stage of this is to take the notes you do want to keep and shrink them to make the important information stand out. Nowadays the best way is probably to type out the tips, quotes and game ideas you particularly liked, but just retaining some pages (or cutting out bits from them) and throwing away the rest also works. Any actual worksheets that are worth keeping can be filed in your own or the school’s teaching files. If you have a special file for workshop notes and handouts, this can be a good thing to look through before the next conference to remind yourself what you learnt last time and to remember which topics and speakers to look out for next time.

12. Pass it on

Once you have processed the information yourself, a good way of making it stick in your head forever is to pass it onto someone else. As well as putting worksheets in teaching files as suggested above, you could give a small workshop in your school based on some of the ideas you learnt at the conference, or polish up those typed up notes and make an article or blog entry out of them. Planning to do so before you go to the conference will also help you pay more attention to the workshops, as the best things you learn will make a little “I can use that in my workshop/ article!” bell go off in your head.

13. Plan to give a workshop next time

Another way of really paying attention to what the presenters say and do in their workshops is to have at the back of your head that you want to do exactly the same thing yourself next year (maybe in the very same room).

14. Arrive at each session early

This will give you a chance to chat with people sitting nearby and so make the bit where you are inevitably asked to “Talk about this in pairs” far less awkward. Having a chance to sit and think about what the workshop might contain will also help you remember what really is said better (as we always tell our students with prediction pre-text tasks and elicitation).

15. Hold a conversation starter

People always say that conferences are a great place to network, but as someone who isn’t very good at meeting strangers I need a little help. A stack of good business cards to give out is one good prop, and a name badge that says the name of your school is another. Having a book or notes from a previous workshop in your hands or on the table in front of you as you sit waiting for the next workshop to start can also help.

Written by Alex Case for TEFL.net January 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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TEFL.net : TEFL Articles : Methods : Tips for people attending TESOL conferences