Wednesday, 26 November 2008

The English UK Teachers' Conference 2008

Another year, and another chance to shine before my peers at the English UK Teachers' Conference, held once again at Prospero House in Southwark. This time, I was acting as co-presenter and official hand-holder for my colleague, Chloe, whose presentation it was really. I was there to describe the technical bits. Our presentation was on Online Records of Work, a subject that may sound so tedious as to make you wonder why I bothered according it capital letters: However, these are a devastatingly simple and effective solution for dealing with groups that have more than one teacher or for instructors (like me) who can't be bothered to fill in the paper version after the end of a long evening slaving over the Present Perfect. If you're interested in the idea, go over to and have a look.

Anyway, we arrived at the venue with no incident, apart from me letting loose an urban legend, while trudging and lurching through a tube station with several hundred other people, about how George A. Romero had based his Zombies' shuffling gait on the movements of London commuters on the underground. I said it loudly enough for several pairs of ears to hear me. I wonder how long it'll take before it gets published somewhere or other.

Prospero House has seen a few changes: The ground floor has been refurbished and made to appear wider by the judicious removal of the pokey little rooms facing Borough Road. In their place, a coffee lounge has been opened, complete with baristas in green aprons, attentive to everyone's needs. The pokey rooms have been shunted upstairs and given inspriational names like 'Express', 'Smile', 'Inspire', 'Poke with a Stick'. I've made one of those up. Why on earth give rooms names? Does it make the average conference delegate think 'gosh, I'm in a room called smile, I'd better look amused or something'? I suppose the designers thought it made themselves look more creative than appellating them room 1A or something.

We'd already missed half the opening session, so rather than furtively wander into the back of the room, we decided to have coffee and investigate which room we'd be using. It was one of the pokey rooms – Smile 1. It contained twelve chairs, an old projector on an old stand at a dodgy angle, no projector screen, one flipchart pad and a view of dilapidated buildings on Borough Road. And, somewhat crucially we thought, considering we were going to be given a presentation on computer-based admin environments, a laptop-sized hole. Fortunately, I'd had the foresight to bring my own along, and Chloe had four memory sticks, a CD and a printed version of the whole presentation, just to be on the safe side. And she'd emailed it to me and herself.

Anyway, we had plenty of time: we weren't due to deliver our presentation until the afternoon. We looked through the programme and decided which of the other presentations would be worth going to. This year, it seemed that there were an awful lot of company reps flogging their wares – sorry, giving meaningful and useful shows while utilising certain branded products. We decided to try and give these a miss and watch what other instructors were doing. Our first stop was motivated solely by self-interest, rather than any attempt at gathering information from as many different sources as possible to later disseminate – or, in the truly dreadful jargon our institution employs, cascade down – what we'd found out to the rest of the teaching team. No, we wanted to find out how to get published, and become full-time EFL publishers and live on yachts, drinking champagne like Liz and John Soars. So, we went to the excitingly-named 'Get your name in lights! How to get published', presented by the excitingly-named Celia Wigley. She was in Smile 1. We tried to smile too, as fifteen people attempted to squeeze in, mostly middle-aged older TEFLers who had all been seduced by the exclamation mark in the middle of the title. Celia was waiting with a brittle, nervous smile at the front, occasionally being kicked accidentally by people stretching out their legs, and looking anxiously at the laptop that someone had dug out, or possibly up. She had every right to look anxious, as the thing wouldn't work. Mark Rendell, the English UK organiser, appeared, and sent someone else off to find a techie guy called John. In the hiatus now offered us, Celia hemmed and hawed and introduced herself, and explained a little of her background. More from what was left unsaid, it was obvious that she'd followed the classic late 80's/early 90's route into TEFL: leave university; do some crap job for a while, while waiting for someone to give you a dream job and/or the world to sit up and realize what a wonderful genius you are; realise that actually you haven't got a clue what you are actually good at or for; see an ad in the newspaper saying 'teach your way round the world!!!' (see, those tempting exclamation marks again!!); go off on some dodgy teaching course or other while instructing a conversation class of 50 exhausted Indonesian businessmen; suddenly wake up and realize you've been in the job 10 years. However, she had, to her credit, managed to land a publishing job with EF. After a few more minutes of waiting, one techie arrived, followed by another, and they gesticulated at the computer for a bit, before disappearing. At this, Celia completely clammed up, claiming that she needed her presentation; So why hadn't she made any prints of the slides?

This afforded us all several more minutes of quiet contemplation, during which I marvelled at the clothing choices of my fellow TEFLers. Celia herself was dressed in a fairly standard long black woolen dress affair, complete with sparse pieces of chunky jewelery. The other women (apart from Chloe, I must say) seemed to have mostly got dressed in the dark with the aid of a guide dog with no aesthetic sense, and had their hair done in a variety of exciting, not to mention haphazard, ways, involving attempts to make grey hair more interesting. The men were far duller; corduroy, twill and tweed predominated, along with slobby jumpers. For the record, I was dressed in black trousers with a fine grey pinstripe, a grey and black striped shirt and black shoes. What the men lacked in spectacular sartorial wear, they more than made up for with the variety of stains of different hue on their clothes, and the various methods employed to try and disguise baldness.

Eventually, John the Head Techie arrived with another laptop, plugged it in and got the whole show going, some twenty minutes late. Actually, it was a shame, because there was quite a lot of potentially useful information about the publishing process itself. What there wasn't was any particularly useful or concrete advice about getting oneself published, just info about the arduous path the neophyte TEFL writer must wander. Fooled by those damned exclamation marks once again! It wasn't helped by Celia being not exactly well-prepared or practiced, either. It never ceases to amaze me how people whose profession involves standing in front of a load of strangers and communicating ideas to them in an alien language suddenly all go to pieces and forget good practice in front of their peers.

Anyway, after the end of her presentation, Chloe and I went our separate ways, her to a presentation on EAP methodology, me to one entitled 'Explore the subtleties of language', fortunately exclamation-mark free, which promised to explore the subtleties of literature, poetry, music and text within an upper-intermediate/advanced context. It was hosted by Karen, the DOS of a language school somewhere in London. She had bags of enthusiasm. She had big glasses. She had hair that had obviously been large and roughly the same shape as Carol Decker's from T'Pau in around 1986, and which had gradually worn down over the intervening years. She had a bright red cardigan and green dress. She had a brittle smile that kept on saying 'please like me'. Sadly, what she didn't have was a) enough photocopies to hand round, b) even a basic powerpoint presentation or c) a clue. The following fifty minutes was an object example in someone's enthusiasm overtaking their ability to express themselves clearly, or to actually analyse what it is they're delivering in class.

What was was, her reading and listening material seem to have expired at some point in the late eighties. We were treated to an extract from an early Jaqueline Wilson book, lyrics from heavy metal group Queensryche and Bon Jovi, and a newpaper article which, as she put it 'is written like he is dancing'.

Karen proceeded to hand out her materials, saying all the while that she loved them and they were excellent. What she did not do was explain methodology, approach, and practice. Instead, she encouraged us to analyse the text, looking for similes, metaphors, and tenses. Why? What for? The most appalling was the Bon Jovi lyrics, for Dry County, which are absolutley chock full of Christian imagery and allusion, and particularly imagery that resonates to an native English speaker. How on earth was it possible to make it relevant or interesting to non-native non-christian students? All in all, a total waste of everybody's time, in my opinion.

Deeply disappointed, I met up with Chloe again and we ate our buffet meals, most of which seemed to have been deep fried even if iy didn't want to be. We discussed final strategies and what we'd seen so far. Around us, other teachers sat in small groups, chatting of this and that. I watched one guy struggle with a daub of ketchup on his plate and something resembling a goujon, finally adding to the stain collection on his shirt. We finished off quickly, the went upstairs and set up our show. In fact, it was a good job we did, because it took us twenty minutes to set up the bloody computer. However, we managed it, and managed to start our presentation on time to a select audience of, er, ten. Well, strictly speaking, nine, as one had clearly overdosed on deep-fried substances and fell asleep at the back. We delivered the whole thing successfully and, amazingly considering our lack of practice, seamlessly, even though I was occasionally distracted by the sight, through the window, of a naked woman casually wandering around the flat above a shop on the other side of the road. What feedback we got was very positive indeed, and I think we provided something useful and tangible for those present.

Finally, there was the closing session, with Hugh Dellar, who was delivering a talk called 'the curse of creativity'. He works for the University of Westminster and has produced several textbooks. The talk was clearly one he had delivered before, but no worse for that. It was an entertaining performance and a good way to end the conference. Hi s basic premise was that teachers spend far too much time trying to be creative at the expense of the students actually learning anything. I think he has a point: why try to recreate the wheel in every lesson? However, I think he missed out a really crucial point – namely, encouraging creativity in students, even though he touched on a point about the Japanese concept of 'shu-ha-ri'.

And it is difficult to take seriously anyone wearing white shoes – SHOES, not trainers – with a cowboy shirt. At least the shirt was stainless.

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