I helped organise an international conference!

In all fairness, the title of this post should really be something like “I did a couple of odd jobs here and there to help out with the absolute ocean of work involved in organising and successfully running an international conference”. In any case, for the purposes of this blog post, I hope you can find it in your heart to allow me this little bit of click-bait.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, down to business. By now you may have heard that my school hosted the IH Young Learners conference last week, which I co-wrote the application for and then eventually got the chance to speak at; all in all, a developing teacher’s dream come true, prosecco all round, clink, blah blah blah …

However, amid all the networking and sharing and developing, there was one particularly special moment during that long conference weekend, a moment that I know I will never, ever forget as long as I work in ELT: on arrival at the conference, every single visiting delegate received a handwritten welcome letter from one of our young learner students.

The idea was deceptively simple, and utterly perfect in terms of the message we wanted to send to our international visitors. Our original conference application stressed the strong ties our school has with the local community, especially the state schools where we run outreach programs. Our directors were adamant that if we were to host a conference for YL teachers, then our YL students should be involved somehow, and they were absolutely right.

Once I had come up with the idea, we just needed to give our students a little nudge in the right direction. To help them get their ideas out onto the page, I designed a couple of easy-to-adapt lesson plans for letter-writing as well as the teaching materials to go with them, including three model welcome letters at the A2, B1 and B2 levels. Our fantastic team of YL teachers then took those plans and materials into their regular English classes and ran with them, and our ridiculously talented YL students did the rest!

Some of them wrote about their favourite restaurants and dishes to try, some of them explained local traditions and cultural references that they thought might interest international visitors, and some chose to give a more warts-and-all description of the reality of living in one of Italy’s forgotten southern regions. Different though they were, however, all the letters were nonetheless spectacular reads.

A welcome letter handwritten by Lara P, a B2 student at the local high school.
A welcome letter handwritten by Lara P, a B2 student at the local high school.

To encourage participation, the letter-writing task was pitched as a city-wide competition, open to our internal YL students as well as all of our external teen students at local state schools. All in all, just over 120 young learners aged 11-18 wrote welcome letters for our incoming delegates. My colleague @lennyberlenny and I then had the unenviable task of sorting through them all to choose 54 winners, one for each of the delegates coming to visit us for the conference.

This welcome letter was handwritten by Sara C, one of my B2 students at the local state-run high school.

A welcome letter handwritten by Sara C, a B2 student at the local high school.
A welcome letter handwritten by Sara C, a B2 student at the local high school.

The reactions as the letters were discovered and read were absolutely priceless. We had gasps of delight and surprise, and even a couple of tears! As a foreigner who has had the privilege of getting to know this sleepy little part of Italy over the last 18 months, I was so incredibly proud and moved to watch others be offered the same insight into the local culture, especially in a place that has had a historically difficult relationship with outsiders.

This welcome letter was handwritten by Alessandro F, one of my B2 students at the local state-run high school.
A welcome letter handwritten by Alessandro F, a B2 student at the local high school.

The cherry on top was unexpected even for me: our delegates were so impressed by the gesture that they have started writing back to our students. The international community has helped our YL students use real English to speak to real people for real reasons. As an ELT teacher, what more could I possibly wish for?

I spoke at four conferences in four months!

In April last year, I led my first-ever teacher training session. It was a quiet in-house affair for fellow staff at my school, in which I focused on one of my favourite areas of ELT: pronunciation. About ten teachers came, and several of them gave positive, encouraging feedback to me afterwards. Some time later, I realised that a few of those teachers were actually starting to use my ideas in their own classroom teaching, and I felt like I had taken the first step on a very long journey.

In December, I was asked to speak at a one-day conference for English-language teachers working at local state schools. My audience had grown from 10 to 40, and suddenly there were no more familiar faces in the crowd. I adapted an in-house training session that had bombed amongst my colleagues earlier in the year, on ideas for activities that require students to prepare their own materials. I had over-prepared, and raced through miles of slides in 45 minutes, barely leaving the delegates time to think … but even so, the attendees asked me enthusiastic questions and even hinted at requests for future training sessions.

In January, my whole school caught the train to Palermo to attend a two-day conference for private language schools in the region. I delivered yet another training session, this time about helping students to prepare for spoken and written fluency tasks. The 30-strong audience was made up of people who I worked with and for, people who worked at rival schools, people who I respected and who I wanted to impress – but I had been practising for two solid days, and I was ready. My timing was razor-sharp. As we worked through my slides and tasks, I realised I was slowly developing my very own presentational style: pithy and practical, with a peppering of research here and some self-reflection there.

In February, I went to a three-day national conference held in Rome, accompanied by my DOS, ADOS and a senior teacher. I spent the first two days delightedly scribbling away during talks by some of my ELT favourites, trying my hardest to network with other like-minded teachers, doing my best to make the most of the opportunity. On the third day, I gave my third training session of the academic year, to a dauntingly packed room of 60 trainers, directors and teachers with far more experience than me. As I finished my talk and made my way to the other room for the next workshop, I caught a teacher I didn’t know acting out one of my activities for a colleague who hadn’t been able to attend my talk. My heart sang.

Earlier this month, my school hosted a three-day international conference and we had teachers fly in from all over the world, from Ecuador, Poland, Ukraine, Portugal, Germany, the UK, and the list goes on. I walked around school trying to find casual ways to bump into some of my ELT idols, women whose careers have been inspiring me for years and continue to inspire me today. I gave a talk, a re-jigged version of the one I’d done at the regional conference two months earlier. Five minutes in, one of the aforementioned women walked in and sat down, and the bottom dropped out of my stomach. When someone asked her at dinner later that night what she had thought of my talk, she apparently paused for a few seconds and then said the word “excellent” and nothing else. I was somewhere over the rainbow, let alone the moon.

Earlier this week I sat down and thought what a lot of difference one year can make. I also thought about how lucky I am to work at a school that not only offers me so many opportunities, but gives me the funding I need to take full advantage of them. Finally, I thought about what a privilege it is to have great role models in my life, both professionally and personally: my mother, who makes international conference-hopping seem as everyday as going down the local for a quick half, and my former DOS who was the first and only person in a position of authority at work to tell me he believed in me. As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see.

I’ll end this post with a few of my #sketchnotes from the three conferences I mentioned above. Enjoy!

I wrote a successful conference application!

The craziest thing happened this week.

During a weekly staff meeting in September, our DOS told us about this thing called the IH Young Learners Conference, and how this great opportunity for professional development was hosted at a different IH school every year, and would we like to write an application to host it at our school, even though the deadline was in less than a week?

So I looked at my new timetable, rapidly filling up with high-stakes Cambridge exam classes, and my brand-spanking-new CLIL maths syllabus that seemed to require some kind of debugging every single damn day, and my non-existent social life, constantly shrinking to accommodate all the things on my work wishlist, and I thought, “Let’s write us a conference application!”

So I did. I trawled Skyscanner to find every single direct flight from our nearest three airports, I brainstormed a never-ending list of potential corporate sponsors for the event, and I slaved over four paragraphs outlining in concise yet vivid detail all the reasons I love this school and this city. Every single person who I reached out to for help was only too happy to pitch in with everything from hotel rates to ideas for creative, unique social events. And even though I knew, in my heart of hearts, that IH were never going to choose our tiny school to host an annual international event, I really believed in what we were doing even just for the sake of acknowledging amongst ourselves how great our school really is.

I mean, everybody knew we weren’t going to get it. Our DOS reminded us not to get our hopes up, and a colleague told me she’d heard a rumour that a very, very big rival school in a very, very big city was also in the running, and a certain ELT pronunciation guru, who had popped down to our neck of the woods to lead a teacher training session, reassured me that the work we had done was valid and that we might even be in with a chance … the following year.

And then earlier this week my DOS and Director ushered us all into the staffroom in hushed tones at 4.30pm on an otherwise normal weekday afternoon and held up a wrinkled piece of A4 paper with a hastily-scrawled message that said IH YL CONFERENCE MARCH 2018 OUR SCHOOL, and, well, I lost my freaking mind, everyone.

I’m still not sure I’ve quite managed to get it back. It’s one thing to believe that you and your organisation are powerful, but it’s quite another to have that belief validated by your multinational parent organisation and school directors around the world who chose the proposal that you wrote.

That heart-pounding exploding-glitter shock was closely followed by the cold realisation of just how much work lies in store for us between now and March, should everything go to plan. For days, I was too scared to even write this blog post, terrified that my director would pop into the staffroom again only to say that it had, in the end, all been a big joke. But she hasn’t done, because it isn’t, and now it’s up to the whole team to prove that we are up to the task.

I have faith, just as I had faith that writing a ten-page application wasn’t a complete waste of time in the first place. But while we’ve got a little breathing room, I’m going to keep celebrating these small victories that remind us of the potential that we teachers have to change our little ELT worlds, one conference at a time.