cropped-connectivity.jpg

Can conferences change the way you feel about your work?

Share

This is a re-post of an article I wrote for the WizIQ Blog on April 2, 2015 (published by Sylvia Guinan). As many of us will be heading to IATEFL Birmingham next week – and those unable to make it, will be attending sessions & interviews online – I thought you may find it interesting. So here it goes 🙂

*************************************************************************************************************

conferences
Image credit: ELTpics by Dace Praulins

Attending conferences can be a rewarding professional experience in so many ways; networking, professional development, travelling and fun. But can it really change the way we feel about our work, and to what extent?

As a regular conference-goer, presenter and, more recently, organiser, my answer is YES.

Here are my top five reasons:

1) Self-efficacy

Self‐efficacy refers to a person’s belief that he or she is able to accomplish a specific task. According to Psychologist Albert Bandura (1977), it is the mind’s self-regulatory function that tells us when to try and when to stop. If someone doesn’t believe something is possible, they are more likely to give up early or not attempt the task at all. When used in the context of teaching, it refers to teachers’ belief that they are able to affect students’ learning positively.
However, do you agree that this is not a belief all educators hold?

Teachers with low self-efficacy usually cite students’ family problems, lack of resources, adolescence or cultural differences as the reasons why they can only have a marginal effect.

Whether you think you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right – Henry Ford

Believe it or not – and with no intention to generalise here- I have rarely seen this type of teachers at conferences.

Why?

IMG_3329
Image Credit: TESOL Greece Annual Convention, March 2016

Maybe because people who invest in their professional development have realised that in order to have a positive effect on students’ learning, they first need to improve their own skills and knowledge; maybe because the sessions they have attended or the people they have met, have given them a boost to keep trying.

Let’s face it: our pre‐service education may have been sufficient to get us into the profession, but not for the reality of educating a diverse group of students. And even years of experience may not be enough to address challenges shaped by the rapid changes in cultural norms, technology, economic security and family structures.

 Conferences are essentially knowledge communities where people pool knowledge and inspiration towards a common purpose. They allow teachers to get a good sense of what’s going on in their field and, in my opinion, provide a powerful tool for strengthening their self-efficacy.

2) Networking

5568246898_abb5eed765_z

Image credit: Newfrontiers

This is one of the most popular reasons people cite for attending a conference. Social media can offer tremendous opportunities for networking but I don’t think they can substitute in-person communication.  There’s power beyond learning in meeting peers, managers and presenters in person and an incredible amount of sharing can happen. Conferences can also be great for socialising and even making friends. Some of my best friends are people I once met at a conference. Having said that, not all the people we network with can be our friends so a distinction between networking and friendship/ personal and professional, is an important one to make.

3) Opportunities

 Whether you are job-hunting, looking for a collaborator for a class project, publishing a book, or wishing to get involved in a committee, opportunities abound at conferences, especially if you network. Almost every conference-goer I have spoken with has something to share about the great opportunities that arose or the deals that were struck in a conference lounge over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

 Of course, I’m not suggesting that conferences can create opportunities. It takes a lot of hard work, time and commitment for this to happen. But people like doing business with people they know personally and conferences can get the right people, in the right place, at the right time. This means that you may be there when the opportunity arises.

4) Creating Content

5604049900_5dbd85a83a_z

Image credit: Doug Belshaw

Tweeting snippets of sessions, posting photos and most importantly blogging, are great ways to create content. You also help other educators who can’t make it to the event, to follow along.

 A few years ago, people went to conferences, learned lots of things but all the learning was restricted to those attending. With the advent of social media this has changed. Just look around a conference room and you will note people tweeting or ‘facebooking’ using conference hashtags.

 How can this change the way we feel about our work?

 My answer is that it is the reflection and the active involvement that can have a positive impact,  with the added effect of using social media to inspire others. By creating a permanent record of  your conference reflections, you become an active part of the event, you get your name out there and you contribute to the learning of others.

And this is leadership :-)

 If you are not convinced, at least make sure you bring something back to share with your colleagues at work. This may involve putting your notes together in a handout, organising a short seminar on activities you found useful etc. Directors of Studies should also encourage and promote this. Schools can’t afford to send all their teachers to a conference so why not ask those attending to share what they learned? Plus, having the extra responsibility to bring something back will encourage your team to be more engaged and present at the event.

5) And what about presenting?

citicenship
#ETZ15 Istanbul

 I would need a whole blog post to cover this so I am not going to go into much detail here other than to say that presenting can also have tremendous impact on the way you feel about your work. You don’t need to be a professional presenter or a teacher trainer to give it a try. I know you may be reluctant and that various questions may cross your mind: Do I have anything worthy to be presented? Do I have the skills to present in front of an audience? What if people don’t like what I say? What if no one comes?

 These doubts are absolutely normal, and we all went through these, but it is my firm belief that practitioners’ ideas are worth sharing. They don’t need to be groundbreaking, innovative or impressive to make an impact. If you have learned something through trial and error, if an activity or method has worked for you, go ahead and submit a proposal. It can be a very rewarding experience and may also affect your students’ perceptions with regard to your work.

Just bear in mind that presenting just for the sake of it can have the opposite effect. Don’t just do it to get yourself out there :-)

And some tips:

Image credit: Digital ELT Ireland 2014

As a regular conference-goer, here’s my top five. What would you add to the list?

  • Post-conference parties are great places to network, socialise and have fun after a long day at the conference but you need to realise that you are not really “off duty”. Potential employers, clients, trainees, or collaborators might observe your behaviour. Be aware of that.
  • Use the conference handbook to pick sessions and plan your day ahead of time. This will ensure that you don’t miss out on interesting presentations. Do not only go to your friends’ or acquaintances’ sessions. While there is nothing wrong with that, are you making the most of your conference experience? Challenge yourself by attending at least one session that you disagree or are a skeptic about the topic. Pick topics that are relevant to your current or future projects. For example, at this year’s IATEFL I’ve decided to focus on emerging research in EdTech and on practical EAP sessions (English for Academic Purposes). Last year, it was leadership that drew my attention. Make your own decisions and plan ahead.
  • No matter how well you plan ahead, there’s no way to take advantage of everything a conference offers. That’s what social media and recorded sessions are for. If you are having a great conversation, don’t cut it short to go to the next session. If you feel you’ve had too much input from the previous session, just take a break and reflect on it. If you want to get a glimpse of the city, take some hours off. You can’t do it all and that’s OK.
  • Take advantage of the exhibition area. You can find out a lot about new course books, methodology books and other materials, often at very good prices. What’s more, most exhibitors are former EFL teachers so they really look forward to networking with you.
  • Conferences can be really expensive and time-consuming so, unless they are part of your job, there is no way you can attend all of them. Be selective. You may decide that you can only afford one out-of-town event a year or every two years. That’s fine. It is not the quantity but the quality that matters and there are always fantastic local opportunities to benefit from.

What are your views on this? Do you think attending conferences can change the way we feel about our job? What are your tips for making the most of the conference experience?  Sylvia and I look forward to your comments.

References:

Bandura, A (1977). “Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change”. Psychological Review 84 (2): 191–215

 

cropped-connectivity.jpg

7 Steps to Student PLNs

Share

Network (in glorious Helvetica)Photo Credit: Alexander Baxevanis via Compfight

One of my goals for 2014 is to apply what I have been planning for quite some time now: encourage my students to develop their own PLNs.

In brief, a PLN (Personal Learning Network) is “an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a personal learning environment”. Interactions can take place online and the learner does not have to meet those people in person.

My own PLN consists of like-minded educators from all around the world; they are the people I learn from and with on a daily basis. They are those who share with me and inspire me to experiment, reflect and become a better educator. Whether I have met them in person or not, these people are now part of my life. I’m not isolated anymore; I’m part of a community of lifelong learners.

How would it be like if students developed their own PLNs in areas of interest or talent? Not only would they be encouraged to learn independently but they would also have access to information and communities impossible to reach from within classroom walls. After all, as 21st century teachers, we are no longer the sole providers of knowledge; however, we can be the ones who will show them the way to opportunities; those who will provide them with skills to learn from and with a global network of people.

Below are 7 steps that I consider essential to this endeavour. The list is by no means exhaustive and you are invited to make your own contributions through a comment or blogpost 🙂

Step 1: Reflect on how you developed your own PLN

Our experience in developing and maintaining a PLN should not be taken for granted. Reflect on that. Think about the steps that you took, the mistakes that you made and on what you have learned on the way. If you don’t have a PLN, it’s never too late to create one. You will feel much more confident to teach something that you have personal experience in. Read what Shelly Terrell and Vicky Loras suggest and contact me in case you need further help 🙂

Step 2: Teach students Digital Citizenship skills

To participate in online communities effectively, students will need to be equipped with skills to use technology responsibly, ethically and safely. They should be polite and tolerant with people; they should be critical thinkers, able to challenge and filter a vast array of information found online; they should also be aware of the dangers they might encounter and be able to deal with them effectively. Even if your students are aware of these concepts, reminding them is always a good idea.

Step 3: Give it time

As you will know from your own experience, PLNs cannot be developed overnight; they are not static either. They grow as we grow and can slightly change when our needs and interests change as well. Give your students time to build and maintain their PLNs. It might work well as a year round project for instance but you will need to check students’ progress regularly.

Step 4: Encourage active participation

Finding and joining a community of like-minded people might be highly important but PLNs cannot be maintained if students are just consumers of what other people share. They will need to contribute back by taking part in discussions, by creating and sharing their own content. Teach students to be creators. They can start with comments or questions and gradually move on to writing blog posts or creating videos. Anything that will add value to other people’s learning will be appreciated and welcome.

Step 5: Find tools that will suit your students’ needs

Twitter, Facebook groups or blogs can be great PLN platforms. Do your personal research and use the ones that address your students’ needs. You will also need to consider your students’ age. If you teach young learners, platforms like Edublogs or Edmodo might be more appropriate. Curation tools are also important. Teach them to curate and organise information and resources with tools such as diigo, Evernote or scoop.it.

Step 6: Don’t forget that PLNs are personal

The term itself suggests students need to personalise the learning experience and make decisions. Don’t impose networks and interests on them; instead, help them define their goals and motivations and make connections according to them. Personalisation can be achieved even with younger students who need to be supervised more closely; for instance, you can initiate collaboration with kids in other countries but let them have a say over who they want to work with.

Step 7: Act as a model

Last but not least, focus on modeling what learning looks like. Share your own learning and experiences. Tell them how you started your own PLN and how valuable it has been to you. Learn with them and from them. Invite them to teach you something; explore and discover new things together. Be part of their PLN and let them be part of yours.