English UK teachers' conference attracts some unexpected delegates
12 November 2012

English UK's annual Teachers' Conference took on an international flavour this year as it welcomed delegates from China, Latvia and Argentina for the first time ever.

Organisers were delighted but surprised by the length to which ELT professionals were prepared to travel for a one-day event, particularly as there has never been any attempt to market the conference beyond the UK.

"Our Chinese delegate said she had heard our conference was amazing and asked if she could come," said Huan Japes, Deputy Chief Executive for professional services. "I hope she'll go back feeling positive and perhaps we'll get more delegates from China next year: we'd like to have more delegates from abroad and will look at encouraging them by offering the member rate, although we do want to keep this as primarily a UK-based event."

Jane Ji, headteacher of Unibridge in Shenyang, was delighted to be at the Teachers' Conference. "My brother recommended it to me and said it would be a good chance. I just wanted to get more information about everything. I have 2000 students learning English, and I train teachers, and I was quite interested in getting inspiration and more information. I have learned lots already: I had never heard of CLIL [Content and Language Integrated Learning] before today.

"I have four days in London, which I have never experienced for myself. Chinese culture is very different to European culture -- I have to consider how to teach in English and overcome the obstacles of what it's about. You can see things about England on websites but it is not the same as experiencing it. It is very helpful to see it for myself."

Mrs Ji was not the only delegate to enjoy the day, held at Prospero House in London. Laura Hebden, from Kaplan in Bournemouth, attending for the first time, said: "It is a chance to mix with your peers and the people who write books -- it really brings it off the page. It was my aim to meet Adrian Underhill, Jeremy Harmer and Chia Suan Chong, and I've done it.

"You read all this stuff about the latest theory but here you can talk about it and see people in the flesh. For instance I loathe the phonemic chart. Now I've seen Adrian Underhill explaining it in such a physical way I love it. I've talked to publishers about books I enjoy using. I'm doing the Diploma at the moment and this has been wonderful."

Richard Levell, from Kaplan in Cambridge, agreed. "I've only been a teacher for six months, after 25 years as an accountant, and I love it. Today has been really good  -- I didn't quite know what to expect but it has been really helpful with some very good ideas."

There were changes to the conference format this year, including a final question and answer session with plenary speakers Jeremy Harmer and Chia Suan Chong, followed by an hour-long drinks reception at the end of the day, sponsored by the British Council, where delegates and speakers got an extended chance to mix and chat. Elective sessions were also organised into different strands for the first time, covering teaching skills, CPD, technology and career development.

"I'm really pleased with the way it's gone -- the plenary sessions were a really interesting contrast. It's been fun, with lots of debate, and there's a real buzz about the atmosphere," said Mr Japes. Jon Grant, of event sponsor Cambridge ESOL, added: "This event is a focal point of English teachers' calendars, and this year's programme has been really great, with something for everyone."

Chia Suan Chong's high-speed history of once-fashionable ELT methods, and her analysis of how to cherry-pick the most useful elements of each to combine into a personal teaching style was one of the day's highlights. Others included Mike McCarthy explaining how to turn students into conversationalists by teaching the words and phrases most often used when replying, and Nik Peachey, demonstrating useful bits of technology for teaching, and taking the risk of allowing his audience to use smartphones and iPads to chat among themselves on a shared website.

Armed only with a phonemic chart and an extendible pointer, Adrian Underhill bounced round one of the biggest elective sessions of the day, making delegates physically experience how each sound feels and exhorting them to put pronunciation at the heart of their teaching.

Opening the day, Jeremy Harmer got the 230-plus delegates to vote on different issues in EL teaching, including the importance of technology, whether and when to correct mistakes, testing and CLIL. Urging teachers to film themselves teaching and constantly ask questions about their own practice, he concluded: "If you meet a 60 year old teacher who's not tired, that's one of the most glorious sights in the world -- they have so much to offer. What I have tried to suggest is that if we consistently ask questions, interrogate ourselves, go back and back again to what things we know about language teaching, that's one of the best ways to stay passionate in this business: to consistently question and argue."

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