ELT: more akin to bonding around a campfire than roasting in Hell’s Kitchen (a personal account of conference presenting)

by Noreen Lam

If the culinary industry is a dog-eat-dog world, then ELT may be as far from that as you can possibly imagine.  I have yet to come across the teacher’s variation of Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen” and thank goodness for that: imagine a CELTA training course where the tutor is liable to lash out at the trainees and insult them for whatever error committed during class, or where he/she has the power to “shut it down” in the midst of a practice lesson gone wrong.  Certification is already intensive enough without the need of verbal abuse or the possibility of elimination votes from your fellow trainees. As much as I do love cooking shows, please don’t let reality television infiltrate the ELT world, no matter what it takes.

In fact, ELT may even be one of the most extreme forms of altruistic existence I have ever seen.  Are there really many professions where blatant copying of ideas is not reprimanded, but rather encouraged and admitted to?  ‘Please, please take this wonderful idea I created for class.’ ‘Oh you’re most welcome.’  Of course the original author is credited but there is so much sharing and support that it blows the mind of those in mainstream society that seek profit and individualistic success.

With this mindset, a fellow colleague, Adam Beale, and I, ventured to the TESOL Spain conference in March to share our ideas and participate in this ‘give and you shall receive’ process.  We first came across the call for papers a few months before the conference, didn’t think twice about it and put together a proposal for our talk.  As the date drew closer, nerves began to set in and doubts floated into our thoughts.  We were but mere novices embarking on a journey into the presentation world, which was already full of big names with countless years of experience that would trump both of ours combined and tenfold.  What could we say about learner diaries, our chosen topic, that the gurus of EFL haven’t already mentioned, and undoubtedly more eloquently?  Who would come listen to us unknowns?  We were praying for at least enough attendees to count on one hand, not including our supportive DoS who insisted on coming to our session despite other celebrities vying for the same timeslot.

Firstly, our patience was put to the test as our talk was scheduled for Sunday morning, so we spent Saturday racing around getting inspiration from all those ELT gurus.  Like children in a candy store, we feasted on ideas.  I took note of the styles of presentation and tried to brainstorm (or rather, steal) tips on how to improve our talk the following day.  After seeing quite a variety, I have formed my personal list of likes/dislikes as a participant:

So, I thought we were onto a good start since Adam and I didn’t have any sponsors or literary masterpieces to promote, nor  were we using Powerpoint – we came with only a few scribbles on Post-its.  That took care of the annoying don’ts that I vowed not to have in our presentation.  We had already scheduled in discussion time at the end, plus a bit of background story to start off our talk, so that was a tick.  I racked my brain for some humorous anecdotes to share, and coincidentally got a perfect little sidenote to reference from a thought-provoking session on Sunday morning.  Check and check.

The participants (a whopping 15+!) participated enthusiastically and made us feel relaxed and even slightly like experts.  No critics snuck in to give us the blackball. In fact, everyone was extremely supportive and keen to hear about our project, and we got some interest in establishing a group for further research.  No one pointed us out for being imposters or uninformed on the latest EFL trends and topics, nor for being unpublished rookies to the field.  They wholeheartedly offered suggestions, support and shared similar experiences and thoughts on all that teaching encompasses.

Fast forward a few months and we were asked to repeat our presentation at the IH Teachers’ Online Conference (IHTOC).  We agreed immediately, thinking that it’d be a piece of cake after the success of the face-to-face presentation.  Presenting online just meant talking into a microphone, not having to worry about people battering you with direct questions, giving you funny looks, or worst of all, seeing them yawn at the earth-shattering insights you offer.  Well, those may be parts of it, but it involves more than just speaking as you wish.  There’s a lot of preparation ahead of time to get your Powerpoint presentation organized, or in our case, to transfer everything over to Powerpoint.  Then of course you don’t want to have too many slides, and the question of how to make it interesting and dynamic looms over you. How can you interact with people you can’t see (nor even hear, at times)?  They are just comments typed in the chat box, and the lack of eye contact, smiles and feedback make it seem but a mere soliloquy.

It was a busy day and I barely caught other talks, but had an idea of how things worked from previous TOCs.  Here is my modified list of dos and don’ts for an online talk (the points from a face-to-face talk also apply, in addition to a few more suggestions):

After psyching myself up for a solo talk (Adam was away that weekend and could not connect with a reliable mic and headset), the nerves set in as I was running around trying to eat dinner, go through my slides and notes again and change out of my pyjamas!  Show time, and I watched as the names started appearing in the participants’ box—16 people were interested and what was most rewarding was seeing some of our Twitter PLN appear!  Another topic for a different day, but social networking has greatly helped connect like minds and offered even more support than from the immediate professional network in the physical vicinity.  Armed with my cup of tea, I started right in, looking oddly at my own image on the screen and talking to my laptop.  It was a strange feeling, and at times I felt as if I was looking for some kind of reaction.  At the beginning I kept looking at the chat box to see if anyone was responding, and thankfully some people did and I felt reassured.  An hour passed and by the end I was exhausted, but satisfied with how everything turned out.  The interactive part where participants went into separate breakout rooms went smoothly, people asked questions, and feedback at the end was very positive.

To reiterate what I said previously, it’s doubtful that such camaraderie and unselfishness exist in many other professions besides ours, so from a relative newcomer to the job, thank you for the open arms and guidance.  I would definitely encourage other teachers to give it a go, even if you think you are new to the profession and without much to offer.  Just because what interests you has been discussed by others doesn’t mean you won’t have fresh insights, and don’t worry, your peers will be very supportive.  These two experiences have made me open to testing the waters again when the occasion arises.

Author’s Bio: Noreen got her CELTA while travelling around Europe and decided it would be a great tool to have on hand. Nowadays she sustains her travel bug with short breaks when possible, and combines that and her culinary interests with teaching at IH Santander. She spends most of her time taking unlimited free trips through the world of YL songs and stories.