Apr 13

Beginners Guide to IATEFL

How to plan your week for IATEFL 
The IATEFL conference is a FABULOUS event but it can be a bit overwhelming with a choice of over 500 talks to choose from. Here's my advice on how to navigate this from over 20 years' experience of attending. See you there!
Video transcript - Reading the IATEFL program

I’m sitting here, curled up on my sofa. Because that’s exactly where you should be when you’re attending the IATEFL conference and planning what you want to see- relaxed, comfortable, with a bit of time and maybe a hot beverage!

If you’re attending this year, especially if it’s your first time, this video is for you and make sure you stay to the end because that’s when the best information is!

Even if you’re not going this year, you might want to keep watching so that you can see the kind of things that are included in the programme and get ready for when you can attend.

I’m Jo Gakonga, I’ve been going to the IATEFL conference and giving talks there since 1999- if you missed it, you can see in this video why I like it so much, but now I want to tell you a bit more about it and how you can plan to get the best out of it.

Let’s start by looking at the conference program. As you can see it’s absolutely huge and a bit overwhelming. The conference runs over a week but it always has the same structure.

The first day, the Monday, is taken up with what are called, pre-conference events or PCEs. These are run by the special interest groups or SIGs and so they’re a bit different to the main conference itself. On these days, each of the SIGs arranges a programme. There are lots of different Special Interest Groups, including teacher education and development, materials writing, pronunciation, SIG, ESOL SIG, and a whole raft of others that you can see here. So if you go to one of these pre-conference events, you’ll be in the same room all day with the same people, all of whom share your particular interest. This can be a great way of starting off the conference, and really having a deep dive into whatever area language teaching you’re interested in.

The evening of the Monday is the start of the conference proper with the official opening. Everybody’s there, so it’s a great way of starting to catch up with people or to meet new people and it’s a bit of a social event.

On Tuesday morning, the main conference kicks off and the next three and a half days -until Friday mid afternoon – are going to be a whirlwind of activity.

The structure of each day follows the same pattern with the plenary talk first thing in the morning from 9am and then this is followed by talks at intervals until 6pm. There ARE breaks for lunch, coffee and tea but it’s a full on day.

The plenaries at the beginning of the day are always interesting. I’ve often thought that must be quite a difficult job to find a topic to talk about. There’s a huge variety of people in the audience from teachers with very little experience to others near the end of their careers, people teaching all kinds of English, as well as academics, writers and publishers. And when a plenary speaker gets this right, it’s a magical experience. And because everybody has shared it, you often find references to the plenary in other talks that you go to throughout the day. If something really strikes you, there’s always an afternoon session to discuss it with the speaker, too.

So that’s the plenary, and they’re fairly easy because you’ve only got one choice. The rest of the day is more difficult. Let’s have a look at the program here. It’s pretty amazing.

You can see that there are nine sessions throughout the day and at every one of those time slots, you’ve got a choice of 18 different talks to go to. EIGHTEEN! So in total, that’s well over 500 talks. How can you possibly choose?

There are few different strategies you could use here and I tend to use all of them at different times. First things first. Look through the programme, look at the titles and the abstracts and highlight any of the talks that speak to you. At this point, don’t worry if they’re on at the same time, just make some gut decisions.

As well as the titles, you might also want to look for people whose names you know and who you know will give a good talk. This isn’t always necessarily the big names in our industry- it might be I’ve heard that person talk at a previous conference and enjoyed it, or maybe I know their work online. You can find all the names of the presenters at the back of the programme too.

Look at this key on the side of the talk – it’ll show you whether it’s a talk. a workshop, a forum. It’ll also tell you how big the audience could be, whether it’s for experienced or inexperienced teachers, and what the main focus is. It’s useful information to help you make your choices.

If you see this by the side of a talk, it means that the speaker is advertising something, probably a book. This doesn’t mean that the talk will be bad at all, but it’s useful to know. Sometimes you get freebies at this kind of talk.

Another way of choosing which talk to go to that can be surprisingly productive is to choose something that’s completely out of your normal range of expertise. Don’t worry- no one’s going to ask you any difficult questions- feel free to go to whatever you like.

All of this planning is good to do when you’re curled up on the sofa as I am, because it’s going to take you some time. It’s definitely worth thinking about this and planning it before the conference. Nothing needs to be set in stone and I have to say that sometimes last minute spontaneous changes to your plans can be really fruitful. But it’s good to have a plan.

In the back of the programme, you’ll find these summary pages and it’s a really useful idea to print them out to take with you, highlighted with the talks that you’ve decided you might like to go to. There’s not much time between talks- and it’ll make it much faster for you to find your way around the conference centre, which can be a bit daunting in itself.

A pro tip if you’re going with someone else is to split up and go to different talks - then you can tell each other about them… the only problem with this is when one talk was amazing and it wasn’t the one you went to.

A final pro-tip on this is that if you start listening to a talk and you really decide that it’s not for you, it’s okay to quietly leave. Nobody takes this personally (or at least not too personally) and in my experience, you can then sneak into the back of a different talk and perhaps learn something more interesting and useful for you.

On the other hand, if you like the talk and want to speak to the person who gave it, you can usually go and say hi to them at the end of it. Speakers usually really appreciate feedback on their talk, especially of course if you liked it so you shouldn’t feel shy about it.

If you’ve had enough of sitting in talks, another way that you might want to spend your time is looking around the exhibition. Lots of different organisations have stands there and they can be interesting to look at books that you might not have seen before or to talk to different organisations about their products or services. There’s a Career development zone there, too.

Finally and this is important so I hope you stay till the end. there’s the evening. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so they say and there’s definitely plenty of play this week. There are often parties organised by publishers, storytelling, a Petcha Kutcha, an international team quiz, and everybody is out to have a good time. In fact, this is probably why not everybody gets to the plenary in the morning.!

Right, there’s your beginner’s guide. There are other things I haven’t had time to mention but I’ll leave you to discover them yourself! I hope all of that has been a bit useful and will help you to make the very most out of your IATEFL conference. See you there.
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