What is IATEFL? It is a short for International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language. IATEFL organizes conferences all around the globe. The international conference, which will be held in Manchester next year, has been around for almost 54 years. There are local events organized in numerous countries, including us. IATEFL-Hungary first appeared after the change of regime, in 1990, and it has been carrying the noble responsibility of recharging our creative batteries ever since. Luckily enough for the ridiculously overpaid (that is, beginner teachers), the past two conferences were both held in Budapest, a good forty-five minutes from my door. Walking ahead on the dirt road of bitter social commentary: if it had been otherwise, I might not have been able to show up at all. I would have been incredibly disappointed, and the reason is:
IATEFL-Hungary is not simply a conference. It is a vibrant social gathering that overwhelms you with inspiration while helping you regain your hope and motivation you might have lost wading through the misty jungle of Hungarian education.
Walking through the door of the venue feels like entering the vortex in Sliders. You immediately get swept up in the spring scented buzz. Excited organizers are bustling around, searching for the name tags and gift bags, representatives of publishing companies and language exam centers are setting up their stands in the exhibition area, and you, smack dab in the middle of all this, are waiting for your turn in the line. Meanwhile, more and more familiar faces emerge from the crowd, including peers from teacher training, colleagues from local schools and, of course, university professors who accompanied me on my sever-year journey. There are some long-awaited reunions around the corner that make me feel like a teenager pushing against the cordon, waiting for my beloved stars to hit the red carpet.
The colorful conference program offered quite a variety of workshops and presentations, just as usual, crowned by plenaries with special guests, such as British linguists Sarah Mercer and David Crystal. The theme and title of this year’s event was ENGaged: spotlight on learning.
The first workshop that truly caught my attention was Lee Shutler‘s course. It was nothing but activity demonstration for forty-five minutes, and I must say this kind of simplicity is most appreciated by English language teachers. We seek practical tips instead of tedious academic gibberish on fifty overloaded slides. At the end of this workshop, I walked out of the room with a list of ideas that could instantly be utilized in my classrooms on the following Monday. And that is exactly what happened. One of my favorites was an activity called My special place, in which students are asked to create a simple drawing of a place that is important and meaningful to them, followed by a few sentences like “In this place I always…” In all cases we ended up with a batch of stunning pieces that gave me a heartwarming reflection of each student’s inner world. Last Tuesday I asked the ladies and gentlemen to switch drawings and share one piece of information that they found interesting about the other. It was wonderful to witness how their life stories slowly began to unfold and fill up the classroom.
“Engaging students with learning difficulties…” I closed the brochure at this point and just walked into the room. This next presentation was given by Judit Kormos, who is a professor in second language acquisition at Lancaster University. Among her endless merits, she is co-author of the book Teaching Languages to Students with Specific Learning Difficulties. Ms. Kormos appeared to be the only person at this conference to provide us with a brief overview of what type of specific learning difficulties (SpLDs) exist, and even gifted us with a couple of practical solutions. This was not the main focus of her presentation nonetheless. Her session revolved around task design and the use of digital technology in the spirit of inclusive language teaching.
According to the latest statistics (2018-2019), currently there are about 79.000 students with special needs in elementary and secondary school classrooms, and the majority of these students are integrated. These figures do not include children who have been diagnosed with milder learning, social or behavioral difficulties, which means that this number could in fact reach more than a hundred thousand.
Since teacher training courses still nurture a harmful illusion by putting atypical students in parentheses, I look to independent CPD events to embrace this issue and provide us with a novel perspective. It would be my honor to contribute to this endeavor in the years coming.
Managing a classroom full of shouting kids seems a walk in the park compared to choosing which session you would like to attend in the upcoming slot. For the most part I was torn between two workshops or presentations. That was not the case when I saw the name of Mark Andrews. My first ever seminar at the university in 2010 sort of set the tone forever: the atmosphere he created has undeniably left a mark on my teacher attitude up to this very moment.
In his inspiring talk he took us on a trip down memory lane, stopping to linger at some significant milestones, in his quest to explain how to create classrooms “that learners really want to belong to”. It was not the penny plain recipe that made his session influential, but his unyielding faith in it, which left us with the feeling that everything he had suggested was indeed feasible, and that we all have the creative power to turn dreams into reality.
“Mark announced that he would like to go to a bar with us, more specifically, to a Czech beer house five minutes from the building, where, he said, the best beer in Hungary was served. At the end of the lesson, he had some errands to run, so he looked into the eyes of one of my peers and said: you go ahead, I’ll be there in five minutes, get me a beer.”
This was his way of saying goodbye in the spring of 2011, eight and a half years ago, as a closure to our one-year Academic Skills course. Much to my delight, the farewell was not for life. He keeps returning every year among such wonderful people as Rachel Appleby, who has an even sweeter way of saying goodbye nowadays as the English voice of Budapest public transport. This time she presented us with a guidebook on writing, with special attention to effective collaboration with our students. One of my favorite bits was: if you assign a writing task, do it yourself, too! Of course we cannot always have the time to join in, yet letting them see you paddling the same boat conveys a powerful message.
There is one thing that never fails to amaze me whenever I come here: no matter what you do or how old you are, every single participant of the conference approaches you with modesty and humility. You feel welcome and respected regardless of who you are, which must be a reassuring experience for everybody, especially trainees or beginner teachers. This event turns out to be an epitome of equal partnership, which, I believe, is the bedrock of a healthy and thriving work environment—not to mention the socializing aspect as the cherry on top. It is exasperating to see how far certain schools are from this milieu…
What’s your takeaway? There are plenty of answers: new activities, ELT projects, interesting research findings, amusing moments, moving reunions, refreshing conversations, gifts, books, toys (especially my new sixty-sided purple dice)… the list is long. Still, my desire to bring something back next year far outweighs all of the above. And frankly, I would never miss another opportunity to see all these people dance in a circle to some terrible music in the dim-lit cafeteria, with leftover turkey in the background, and a guy waving with an entire jug of wine in his hand. I later recognized that guy in the mirror!
All photographs used in this post were retrieved from the Facebook page of IATEFL-Hungary.