There are so many incredible English language teaching conferences around the world. It sometimes feels like it’s always conference season.
Whether you’re attending a large international conference in person (e.g., TESOL or IATEFL) or joining a virtual conference online (e.g., BBELT, Educast, or ElliiCon), you’ll need to be prepared in order to get the most out of the experience.
Here are some of our top tips.
1. Keep it simple!
Conferences can be overwhelming. There are often a lot of different sessions to choose from, and there’s a risk of feeling like you’re constantly rushing from one session to the next.
When I first attended IATEFL, I somehow managed to attend a session in every single time slot. That must have been about 10 sessions a day!
Needless to say, I was exhausted, and I probably didn’t have time to process much of what I was learning.
In short, don’t do what I did! Take it easy and enjoy the chance for some real professional development.
2. Choose your focus
When there is too much choice, it can help to pick a developmental goal or an area of interest and stick to that.
For example, when I was studying for my DipTESOL, I tried to attend as many sessions on pronunciation as I could. Then, when I was developing as an author and materials writer, my focus shifted to resource creation topics. Nowadays, I’m naturally drawn to anything involving visual thinking, accessibility, or teaching learners from refugee backgrounds.
3. Have a (loose) schedule
So you’ve chosen your areas of interest and you know it’s unrealistic to attend everything. This is where having a plan and prioritizing sessions you are especially interested in helps.
If the conference has an app or a digital program, use the search function (or Ctrl + F) to look for keywords or speakers you want to see. Circle, highlight, or add any specific sessions you want to attend to your diary. You could color code or add some sort of mark to any that you really want to see.
4. Break times are brilliant
Make the most of your break times. It’s important to give yourself time to relax and digest all the information.
If your conference is online, make sure to move around, refuel, and get away from the screen for a while.
If you’ve traveled a long way to attend a conference, schedule time to go sightseeing, meet other attendees for a coffee, or have a wander round the exhibition space.
What I missed out on most at my very first IATEFL was the networking. I was so determined to see as much as I could that I missed out on the real opportunities.
Some of my most life-changing experiences have been when I’ve skipped sessions or met someone interesting at break time. I met all three of my publishers for the first time at IATEFL!
Try to strike up conversation with the person sitting beside you during a workshop or over lunch. Conference attendees are typically receptive to making new connections and connecting on social media.
Take photos of sessions you attend, post them on social media, and use any relevant hashtags. If you can, tag the speaker. Most people are delighted to have been mentioned on socials and will probably reshare your post.
It can often be a challenge to stay focused during workshops or talks, especially as the day goes on. One of the best ways to pay attention, process the learning, and identify the key takeaways is to sketchnote.
This is essentially adding simple drawings, arrows, borders, and diagrams to your notes. I find I’m much more likely to review my notes, share them, and remember them whenever I sketchnote them.
Here’s an example:
I tend to find that whenever I sketchnote someone’s webinar, talk, or workshop, they’re always delighted. Even when I was just starting out. So feel the fear and post on socials anyway! You can tag me @EmilyBrysonELT and @ElliiLearning for an even greater reach.
Find out more about sketchnoting by reading my previous blog post right here on Ellii.
7. Get social
As I’ve mentioned, conferences aren’t just about attending workshops. They are opportunities to meet new people, plant seeds for future projects, and have fun!
Both online and face-to-face conferences often have social programs. When Innovate was hybrid, it had a networking space, where people could log in simply for a chat. IATEFL tends to have evening events such as a Quiz, Pecha Kucha, and Concerts. There can often be guided sightseeing within the schedule.
These are some of the best times to make connections. You could also arrange informal meet ups with people in ELT-themed social media groups.
8. Visit the exhibition hall
Conferences often have spaces for publishers, education providers, and other relevant organisations to share their products and services with you.
Take time to wander round, speak to the exhibitors, browse the books, and trial any software or learning tools.
If you like free stuff and discounts, this is the most likely place for it! Publishers may offer sample copies of their books for attending a workshop, while course providers may have discount codes for signing up during the conference.
Presenting at a conference is an excellent way to develop professionally and share your expertise with the world. It’s also invaluable to build your online persona.
I’ve found that public speaking has created a snowball effect for me in terms of project offers. Many people have contacted me after conference sessions requesting that I speak at other events or collaborate with them in some way.
If you’re still building your confidence with teacher education, start small by presenting at a local event or ask the conference to limit the attendance of your session. They could give you a smaller room or a later time slot, for example.
10. Enjoy the journey!
This one has two meanings. Firstly, enjoy the journey of the conference itself. Whether it’s one day or a full week, you’ll notice how you’ve developed over the course of the event. Take time to reflect and have fun.
The second meaning is about enjoying the physical journey. As highlighted in the sketchnote above, conference travel, especially international, can have a significant effect on the environment.
If possible, find creative ways to reduce your carbon emissions. Consider ride-sharing, taking the train, or combining your trip with a vacation or another event. You could even cycle.
I’m a big fan of cycling, and I’m getting a bit of a reputation for cycling to conferences. So far, I’ve cycled home to Glasgow from SATEFL (Perth, Scotland), from Glastonbury (yes, the festival) to NATECLA (Birmingham), and to IATEFL in Liverpool and Belfast.
Last year, my cycle not only cut emissions, but I also managed to raise £2,000 for Amala, a charitable organization that provides education for young adults living in refugee camps.
This year, I intend to cycle 250 miles over three days to IATEFL in Harrogate to raise money for the Hands Up Project.
You can find out more about my cycle on my own blog.
What are your top tips for conferences? Feel free to share them in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.