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Conference Presenter: Yes, Maybe, or Never?
by Patrice Palmer.


When I sat on my local TESL Board of Directors, we spent months planning our annual spring conference. Most years, the call for proposals yielded a very low rate of return. In fact, most years board members had to personally reach out to teachers to encourage or even persuade them to present. In this post I would like to explore the reasons why that happens.  

My good teacher friend Joan Bartel and I share the view that presenting at conferences is not only fun but also quite addictive. So far, I have presented at least 30 times in the last 20 years both locally and internationally. We often see each other at conferences including last year’s TESOL Convention in Seattle. Over the dinner one evening, we shared how our presentations went and talked about the thrill of presenting at an international conference. However, obviously many teachers do not share our excitement.  

Was I always such a conference-keener? Of course not! I can clearly remember my first conference presentation. I was working in a Teaching and Learning Centre in Hong Kong and I was told (not asked) that I would be presenting at a conference for local language teachers. My topic was how to teach English using a new virtual 360° panoramic website, which was brand-new technology back in 2005. Not only was I nervous about actually speaking to a large group, but also worried about demonstrating the technology itself operating live. While I waited patiently to be called to the podium, my mouth got dry and I was sweating! I remember the papers shaking in my hands… And before I knew it, my 30-minute presentation was over and I was sitting in audience with the conference participants. Even though I was terrified and anxious, I am very glad that I was forced to present. Without this prompting, I am not sure that I would have had the confidence to submit a conference proposal on my own. The best thing about that first presentation is that every time after that, it just got a bit easier because I knew I could do it.   

Do I still get presenter jitters? YES! As an example, moments before my TESOL Convention presentation in 2016, I was still reviewing my Power Point slides right up to my curtain call, but it was all worth the butterflies in the end. I knew that I had a good grasp of the content, but I just wanted it to go well.   

I certainly understand one’s apprehension in presenting, but the low rate of presenter proposal submissions for last year’s local TESL conference still perplexed me. I wanted to find out the reasons behind it so I designed a simple 2-question survey and sent it to my blog followers.  

My first question was, “If you haven’t presented at a conference, is this something that you would like to do in the future?”  Surprisingly, more than 46% of teachers responded with a YES. Approximately the same number replied “Maybe”, and only 8% said “Never”, which is much lower than I expected. 

My second question was, “If you are not interested in presenting at conferences, what is the number one reason?” Only 10% of the teachers said that they are too busy, which is understandable given our profession. Unfortunately, 20% of the respondents stated that they are too afraid to present in front of colleagues. Again, this is understandable since glossophobia (or the fear of public speaking) is the number one fear for many people. About 35% of teachers said that they are not interested because they would not receive any money (it is expensive to attend conferences). What was most surprising to me is that the same number of teachers said that they do not feel like they have the skills or expertise to present at a conference. Personally, I believe that all teachers have the skills (many of us teach presentation skills to our students) and we certainly have expertise from our own classroom experiences that could be shared to help other teachers.   

For this year’s TESL Ontario Conference in Canada, I invited a former colleague to co-present. Drew had always wanted to present but said that he didn’t have the confidence to do it alone. The day after our presentation, I received an email from him: “That was fun. Thanks for asking me. It was a great experience”.  

If you are an experienced conference presenter, think about inviting a newbie to co-present with you. I would also recommend that you start with a small, local conference first. Panel presentations are also a good way to get started and for you to gain experience and confidence.   

What else do you think we could do together as a teacher community to help other teachers feel more confident and believe that they have something worthwhile to share at TESOL conferences? If you are an ESL/EFL teacher who has never presented at a conference, please write in the comments below why you made this choice. If you know of any resources to help teachers feel more confident about presenting, please share. If you are a blogger, think about writing a post to encourage teachers to put themselves out there on the conference stage. Then, together we can see how teachers could be supported in this exciting professional development opportunity. 

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Patrice Palmer

Patrice Palmer, M.Ed., M.A., has more than 25 years’ experience as an ESL Teacher, TESL Trainer, and Writer in Canada and Hong Kong. She has taught students from 8 to 80 years in a variety of programs such as English for Specific Purposes (ESP), English for Academic Purposes (EAP), and language courses for new immigrants. She is the author of The Teacher Self-Care Manual and Successful Group Work.

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