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