When a big international conference like IATEFL comes to your home town, it’s too good an opportunity to miss.  I must confess, though, that despite being a teacher for seven years, I had never attended the conference before. Part of the reason was probably the fact that I thought IATEFL was just too big, too standoffish, and too commercial. As it turned out, I couldn’t have been any more wrong.  Here’s a rundown of my top takeaways from my inaugural IATEFL, as well as a few tips for other teachers thinking about checking it out for the first time …

1. It’s actually a very friendly event

Despite being very big, IATEFL doesn’t feel intimidating and has a positive, relaxed and friendly atmosphere. It also made me realise that teachers are a very helpful and friendly lot. At some point in the conference total strangers offered me a charger for my phone, a pen (when mine failed to work), a bag full of goodies, and invitations to many social events. The ELT ‘celebrities’ are also pretty down-to-earth and happy to chat or take a picture with you. For me the best thing about IATEFL was being able to talk openly and passionately about teaching with so many different types of people.

2. It’s not all about the money

Now, I don’t know much about event management, but I’d imagine running an event on such a scale costs a lot of money, and it’s inevitable that it will be commercialised. Some criticise IATEFL for being too sales-focused and merely a convention for publishers to sell their latest books. However, I didn’t feel I was pressured to engage with this commercialism. Personally, I didn’t even have time to look at the exhibition area properly as I was running around talking to people and attending talks. It was also fairly easy to avoid blatant sales pitches by reading the descriptions of the talks. Out of over twenty presentations I attended, there was only one where a book was mentioned, and it was right at the end of a very good and practical talk. Yes, there were free samples of materials, food, and drinks, sponsored by the publishers – but why not? Why not enjoy a free cup of coffee in the middle of the long busy day? I did. Wouldn’t you? Plus, I probably don’t need to buy a pen for the next two years!

3. You need to be prepared

IATEFL is huge! With over 500 talks to choose from, you need to be extremely organised if you don’t want to miss out.  My top tip would be to download the conference app and select the sessions you are interested in. Be prepared, however, that the sessions might be cancelled so have a back up talk to go to. Also, study the conference venue plan. It came as a total surprise to me that the conference was split between two different venues. On my way to the Hilton Metropole in a hurry, I mistakenly walked into the much posher Grand Hotel, and it took me some time and a couple of funny looks to realise I was in the totally wrong place.

4. Networking is fun and not scary

Networking has never been my favourite activity. It’s always seemed soulless, I never know what to say, and it’s generally feels intimidating and awkward.  Yet, at IATEFL I turned into a networking ninja. It probably had to do with the fact that everyone was so open and friendly. People happily introduced me to their colleagues or suggested the names of the people I should speak to. Everyone was very easy to approach, including well-known authors and bloggers. And if you don’t know where to find them, don’t worry – you will probably end up sitting next to them and working together at the sessions, like I did.

5. You get lots of practical tips

One thing I really wanted to take away from the conference was some practical ideas for my classroom. Talking to my colleagues prior to the event, many thought that the majority of the sessions at the conference were academic research-based talks. This wasn’t really the case.  I went to some great talks that gave me many practical ideas that I was able to put into practice straight away.

6. There are many social events you can attend

It’s not just learning and networking – there are plenty of opportunities to have fun, too. I really enjoyed  Pecha Kucha presented by Kieran Donaghy and Katherine Bilsborough and Jamming with ELT hosted by Adam Scott. My personal highlight, however, was the IATEFL Evening Party organised by ELTjam & Cambridge Assessment English. Not only was there an interesting mix of speakers talking about the trends and technologies of the future, but also great food and drinks. It was great to see so many people from around the world talking, connecting, and having fun. I think this really sums up the spirit of IATEFL. Even if you feel exhausted by the end of a busy day at the conference, don’t miss out on the social events – they are fun, free and you can learn things, too (although I was probably the only person holding a notepad rather than a pint).

7. Exciting things are happening in many areas of ELT

The area I was focusing on the most at the conference was the use of technology in both teaching and training. Gamification continued to be one of the key trends this year, with several talks about learning and even assessment through play. Another key theme was the potential of Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality to create better learning experiences. Developments in voice technology and voice-driven AI assistants were discussed as well as the implications of their use for language learning. But what made me particularly happy was a growing number of presentations on how technology can be used for teaching refugees and asylum seekers. It shows that technological development doesn’t just result in producing more cool tools but can really make a difference when teaching under challenging circumstances.

8. You realise you actually know lots of people

One thing that put me off going to IATEFL was the fear of being alone. I didn’t want to go to a different city for nearly a week to attend sessions on my own. To my surprise, I realised that I recognise and know many people in the industry, thanks to reading their blogs or taking online courses. It was nice to actually meet people with whom I had only interacted in a virtual world, and to get to know them better.

9. People come from all over the world

I don’t know the official figures but just by looking at the mix of people at the conference I can say that IATEFL is truly an international event. It really made me feel bad about thinking that last year’s conference in Glasgow was way too far. I really enjoyed meeting people who are involved in the same thing as I am but who live in completely different places around the world. Most of them travelled at their own expense on their annual leave, which to me is a sign of real passion for the profession.

10. It’s exhausting, but it’s worth it

By the end of the conference I felt both exhausted and exhilarated. Exhausted, because I should have probably paced myself and not tried to attend every talk I possibly could for entire three days. Exhilarated, because with all the great ideas and inspiration I’m now more motivated to teach and prepare training sessions.

So, that was my very first IATEFL experience and, if I had to choose one reason for going, I’d say it’s that you definitely get fired up. The challenge is, I guess, to keep that fire alive.

Anna Neil is an ELT teacher and teacher trainer based in Brighton, UK. She is passionate about educational technology and has created an app for vocab revision – explayn.co.uk 

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