IATEFL 2015 Conference

When you go to the IATEFL Conference 2015 website, the first thing you see is is an advert for Booking.com, offering you a wide variety of places to stay in Manchester.  If you sort by price, you’ll see at the top of the page the five star hotels where the plenary speakers, textbook writers, publishing managers, Cambridge Examiners, British Council big-wigs, and, of course, the top IATEFL organisers themselves, will all stay. You’ll see that

rooms have large walk-in wardrobes, satellite TV and an iPod dock, and
the elegant bathrooms feature a marble bath, large shower and free bathrobes. 

During the conference, the high jinks that go on among the privileged few will find their apotheosis in these glitzy hotels’ cocktail bars, where ten quid gets you a silly drink with an umbrella in it and a seat near she who’s going to give the opening plenary and he who edited the latest edition of English File Intermediate. But while these worthies swap stories of their recent travels (“I just love the food in Hanoi, don’t you!”) and conference appearances (“Then some, some person in the audience asked me if I’d ever actually taught English! I mean, really! Moi?”), those of the IATEFL crowd further down the food chain will having a rather different experience. They’ll be eating soggy, rain-soaked  chips from a platic plate as they turn the damp pages of their conference programme in a bus shelter, waiting for the 56 Manchester night bus to take them back to their not very well-appointed, the-bathroom’s–third-on-the-left-down-the-corridor room in Mrs Blathingstoke’s Bed and Breakfast.

Who goes to this jolly jamboree? What proportion of the gate is made up of your average language teacher, I wonder? My bet is that most people there spend less than 10 hours a week in the classroom, and even if I’m wrong, which I probably am, the event is still one where there’s scant evidence of any real connection with the membership. How many teachers pay to be members of IATEFL anyway? I went to a few IATEFL conferences, paid for by my employer, but I was never a paid-up member. Why would I be? What, I might ask, in a Monty Python voice, did IATEFL ever do for me? Apart from the viaducts, of course.  No, really, what do they do for their members? What have they done to push for better salaries in China, fight for equal pay and conditions for NNESTs, promote research into SLA, for example? What kind of general influence do they have on the ELT profession? What’s their annual income? Where does all the money go? Why does the regional secretary need an armour-plated Hummer to go to the office in; is she really that unpopular? These are serious questions calling for serious answers. But, seriously though, does this awful annual knees-up represent the height of their achievement? To be fair for just a second, I have to recognise the work of the special interests groups, where  really impressive grass root initiatives happen from time to time.

If you’re thinking of going, then don’t expect any critical examination of important issues in Manchester, because that’s not what the conference is about. The IATEFL conference is about self-promotion, it’s held to justify IATEFL’s existence and to give the huge commercial concerns that run the ELT industry a chance to flog their shoddy goods to you and the rest of the horde of dazed delegates who, like you, will spend the week hurrying along endless corridors, clutching the string handles of flimsy Oxford English paper bags full of today’s collection of worthless samples, looking for Room 1234 (or was it Room 1324?), dizzy with the demands of 30 concurrent sessions held mercilessly every hour for 5 long days, struggling to keep up, not quite able to take the sensible decision to abandon the awful circus and go to the nearest pub.

So, how to choose what sessions to attend?  Big is definitely not better, and anyway, there’s not much evidence of big star quality this year: the programme offers a list of plenary speakers that would be disappointing if you were attending a Saturday session organised by the North Cornwall Ramblers Club. But who knows! They certainly won’t be worse than all the usual names, all those staying at the glitzy hotel, all those on the long list of teacher trainers and coursebook writers who, as they tour the conference circuit, do their best to make sure that innovation is stamped out and all the true but embarrassing accounts of teacher exploitation from all over the world are swept under the conference carpets.

One by one a succession of invited and sponsored speakers will take the stage, and after a fawning introduction by somebody who knows nothing about them, they’ll drone on about how much progress we’ve made but how much more remains to be done, plundering a rich store of corny clichés and ancient anecdotes, skilfully managing to avoid saying anything remotely controversial. If you could get a bird’s eye thermal image of the conference centre at 12.45, say, it would show blobs of pale yellow in all the auditoriums where the invited speakers are performing, indicating that all the warm heat of social engagement has been sucked out of the room, extinguished by these old campaigners as they plod through their set pieces yet again, oblivious to the discomfort of an audience which realises after the first 5 minutes that it’s made a terrible collective mistake and now can’t get out. The shuffling of feet, the constant low din of people moving around in their seats, the anxious coughing, the palpable sense of time dragging, the sly exits from the hall which threaten to turn into a desperate stampede, none of this will suffice to stop the show. And thus, day in, day out, a stream of ELT’s  stars will spin their tarnished yarns, while those who listen struggle to stay alert, their free Pearson pens poised over their empty notepads in the vain hope of hearing something – anything – worthy of note.

If anything of interest is said, it will be by somebody whose soggy chips and lumpy bed at Mrs Blathingstoke’s B and B didn’t prevent them from enthusiastically sharing a few fresh, innovative, sincerely-held ideas with the 45 people who were clever enough to have shunned the big guns and come to Room 5678 instead. But if it’s that good you can read all about it on the blogs just a few days later, so do yourself a favour and don’t go.

And that, as Forrest Gump would say, is all I have to say about that.

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17 thoughts on “IATEFL 2015 Conference

  1. If you do go, cos someone has actually paid real money and given you the time off to attend, check out the art galleries in Manchester and the Trafford centre for shopping. As far as the conference itself is concerned just sit in the bar and wait for interesting people to turn up. Those who are interesting, have probably never heard of TEFL and probably think it´s something that frying pans are coated in. It´s best not to enlighten them, they might die of terminal boredom. Beer is good up´t North and so are the fish and chips. Best eaten walking down the street in the pouring rain. DO NOT take an umbrella if you go to Manchester, people will think you are a cissy. Locals walk around in shirtsleeves and flip-flops in the middle of winter. On your return, when asked to give a report on the conference, just read any article from 30 years ago and spit that out cos absolutely NOTHING has changed!

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  2. Thank you for saving me so much of my hard-earned dosh, by not going to the Conference. Dosh earned, it should be said, teaching, yes, teaching, anybody remember that?
    Bit frustrated to see that I could have had a good life of hotels, water-skiing and interaction with blonde, cunning linguists in late night cocktail bars in Manchester, without doing anything for 40 years but shoot the shit, make some money and contribute absolutely zero cubed to a constructive argument on how people learn and how teaching should be approached. Glad I didn’t wait for the answer. Yours, breathless….

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  3. thanks for your post. I knew this time’s sort-of nothing-on-status Geoff,- anyway what I “managed” to find were only few scholars this time- Simon Borg, David Crystal, Patsy Lightbown, and Brian Thomlinson- (god knows what kind of things they do- they just do small sessions I would imagine.) despite IATEFL put massive presenters this time. you can tell. I hope IATEFL will generously put some recorded lectures of these scholars, online, as free of charge. Apart from that, I am not quite sure what is the main thing for this show.

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    • Hi Paul,
      Thanks for the link – I support the wandering zombies! I’ve been following IATEFL’s on-line interviews and videos. The interviews are truly dire – not one of the interviewers makes the slightest effort to go even an inch below the surface. The plenaries have been even more boring than usual and Jeremy Harmer gives yet another empty talk, as blissfully unaware as always that he’s sounding off in an area where he has absolutely nothing to contribute. Ughhhhhh!

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  4. As a teacher with 26 hours of lessons a week, who saved up to go to IATEFL during my holiday time I found this post unfair, I saw some great talks and met some wonderful people, and came home with an injection of motivation to keep me going until my next conference.
    As a small-scale speaker I appreciated the challenge and was proud to be chosen for IATEFL, and finally as a volunteer for a national EFL organisation I imagine that whatever fees the organisers were offered in the form of expenses etc. went nowhere near covering the work they have done over the past year.

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  5. I agree Fabenglishteacher that any voluntary work can never be paid. I agree that lots of great talks were given. I agree also that it must have been wonderful to meet great people. I totally understand how you feel. It must have been a wonderful holiday time for sure. You deserve it. You worked for it. You had fun and you presented.

    What is the world of conferences like? This is the issue here. Who does it serve?

    For me having to have this kind of discussion in the 21st century is kind of depressing. With all the conferences online and webinars giving voice to people all over the world and sharing stories, thinking that going to IATEFL is going to be the most inspiring and motivating experience is not really seeing the picture here. Tons of thousands of teachers will never set foot on it, has never heard of the international associations or even the national one, and those who do are either doing it because are already in the academic circuit to publish articles and giving presentations to add to their CVs, or are part of the ELT industry of language institute that for the same reasons (career prospects) want to give an upgrade to their CVs. Or maybe they have spare money for a nice vacation in England. At the end it is mostly about trying to get a slice of industry at the expense of the rest of the teachers worldwide. Afterall, you have to have to get your name out there so other teachers will listen to you and buy your stuff. It’s a nice time of the year (conferences) to go shopping too within the venues and outside, don’t you think? Loads of fancy books with the next magic solution for your classes, and beautiful publications… Meanwhile in the real world most teachers can’t make ends meet.

    Probably those who attend such conferences understand it’s not their problem. And they have the right not to care and continue working towards of building a career for themselves and maybe become the next big name of ELT.

    Now, let’s put our personal feelings aside and look at conferences from a non-ELT perspective. Let’s see if there is a resemblance there or whether all has been said is really unfair.

    I have a friend who is male, about 30 and he’s been in conferences around the world. His field is environmental education. He is single. His husband is a journalist. I’ve know him for the past 6 years and he sends me material to help him prepare for posters presentations, etc. I lost count of all the confs he’s been to. Once he said that he was so disappointed with his career prospect. He looked around him and saw teachers who did not care in high school as he did (he was teaching in high school biology. He has a degree in agronomy and biology. A Master and last time I heard working towards his PhD.) He was questioning himself if it was all worth it. I mean he was spending tons of his pay check for something he did not know would do anything for him really. (Financially of course. Other fields we don’t have the red carpet like in the ELT) Well, in a way it did. He is now the coordinator of the enviroment course in a university. Does it pay much much better than a high school teacher? I haven’t asked him but knowing my country policy when comes to wages, if it is a private sector maybe it has doubled his salary which is not bad. If you lucky into getting the government university things get better.

    I get tired, frustrated just to think that one has to go all through this ordeal to have a reasonable salary. Sad even!

    But wait ELT industry is about tons and tons of language institute worldwide. In my country there is no regulations whatsoever. Language institutes pay around $3-$5 dollars an hour. Luckily some schools might pay a bit more but I don’t really think, here in my town anyone pays more than $10. Each dollar is R$3,00 so you can see that it might vary from around R$10,00 to R$20,00 an hour. Most people I’m sure earn around R$10,00. If you get R$20,00 you are lucky.

    How can teachers think of pursuing a PD with such low wages? Well, the books I bought along the years were bought by making sacrifices. Not going to hairdress was one of them. Thank God all I need is a good shampoo, and I’m beautiful.

    I can list a number of people in ELT who are really making the difference around the world by providing access to PD and encouraging one another to go out there and make the difference too. But associations are not doing that. But for most people this does not count. You need the diplomas and build a good CV. It’s not about knowledge alone and has never been.

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  6. Not saying though that the conferences are bad in itself. Surely the event itself is amazing and I’m sure no one who is able to attend it would say otherwise. I wouldn’t. Especially if I am able to hang out with people from my personal learning network. People we discussed and spent time online, followed each other’s journey. Just that there is more to it. The Conference is a just a slice of the real ELT world. Far from the industry and the red carpet there are real issues people need to consider. Unless who run IATEFL is the industry itself. Then, we are doomed.

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  7. Pingback: P is for Power | An A-Z of ELT

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