ELT Conferences: Organiser’s Perspective

Henrick Oprea

ELT Conferences: Organiser’s Perspective
by Henrick Oprea.


I’ve been in ELT since 1997 and my very first conference as an attendee was in 2000. There was no millennial bug that year, but the conference bug certainly bit me. From a conference goer, I became a conference presenter and before I knew it I was volunteering to help in the conference. I had the chance to be an MC and work with the minders; I’ve been a proposal reader and a member of the academic committee. And now, in my current position as the president of BRAZ-TESOL, I’m actually in charge of organising our 16th BRAZ-TESOL International Conference (16th BTIC), to which all of you are invited, by the way. As my roles changed, so did my perspective of ELT conferences.

As a conference goer, you’re concerned about the value you’ll get for the money you spent. “Will I see good sessions? Will there be enough networking opportunities?” are some of the questions I had in mind. As a conference organiser, I can tell you that the concerns are even bigger. The question now is not whether it’ll be good value for the money I’ve spent, but whether it’ll be good value for money other people invest – and this makes a huge difference in terms of responsibility. Thankfully, ELT is a world filled with generous people who are willing to offer their expertise and support to help you in such a humongous endeavour. The only possibility of one being able to organise such massive events is counting on, and really depending on, the help of volunteers.

As a conference organiser, you soon realise that even though the academic part of the conference is important, there are many other aspects that need to be dealt with if you want the conference to actually happen in the first place. I’m talking about the choice of the venue, for instance. Can we find something to hold the number of participants we have in mind? How expensive is it for people to pay for accommodation and food? Is it easy to get to the venue?

As far as the academic part goes, the questions are also abundant. Do we have the right speakers? Is there a good balance in the presentations? Can we offer support for first-time presenters? Do we actually want first-time presenters (and, to my mind, the answer to this question should always be YES)? Have we ensured that the gender-balance of plenary speakers has been taken into account? Regardless of gender, did we manage to get outstanding speakers for the money we had? How do we deal with the “recommendations” of sponsors when they suggest (push) a name you didn’t really want in the first place? How financially-sound is the association to fight such battles?

But there’s more! You have to think about the financial part of the conference as well. How will it pay for itself? Can we make it any cheaper for participants? How? How can we save money? What if we tried to be more sustainable and ditch paper? Will the Wi-Fi be powerful enough to hold all connections then? Should we try new technology to help participants or will that just make things more confusing? Are we willing to play it safe and do the same old things that have been done, or are we OK with being open to new problems in order to try to provide a different experience to attendees? If so, how much further will we get?

I guess the main issue for a conference organiser is that you suddenly realise you’ll be organising a conference you’re very unlikely to attend yourself as you’re constantly handling problems in the backstage so that the participants’ experience is as smooth as possible. In a conference with more than 1,000 people, it is very likely that some will be displeased with something. However, that’s what we do.

As we walk into a classroom in our teacher role, we are putting our planning to the test. This is pretty much what we do as conference organisers. We plan, we prepare, we talk to people, we invite A LOT of people to help you out. You are very grateful for the support you get and wonder how you’d manage if it were not for all the good will of people to make things happen. You relearn the value of trust and the number of people willing to work to make something happen just because they want to donate their time and work for a cause. Yes, our conferences are not-for profit and run by volunteers, so it’s amazing to witness what can be accomplished when people work together. It’s the magic of organising an ELT conference – the magic of bringing people together, of worrying about others’ well-being and investment. It’s being open to all sorts of criticism and hearing that things will never work, and yet believing that it will because a group of fantastic professionals have decided to come together to make it happen.

Next time you attend a conference, pay attention to the little details and be thankful to all those who have put it together. You never know the workload until you try to do it yourself!

Teaching One to One – Henrick

Henrick Oprea

What Makes One-On-One Classes So Special?
– Henrick Oprea

After a long time teaching mainly groups, I’m now back in the position of having an equal number of private (or one-on-one) lessons. This certainly makes it easier for me to put things into perspective. It’s shed some new light on the differences between each kind of teaching, and also on what makes it so special for me as a teacher.

First of all, I’m a firm believer in personalisation and proper feedback for students. I also believe that the role the affective part plays in teaching is just as important as the role of the cognitive part as you can’t really have positive cognitive results if you’re unable to connect with your learners in the first place. When I’m teaching a group, I usually take advantage of the first classes to get to know my students as people and create some rapport with them. It makes it easier for them to trust me as a teacher and this allows me to demand a lot more from them.

In a one-on-one classroom, with only two people in the room, empathy is key. What I try as much as possible is putting myself in the shoes of the learners and really understand not only the reasons for their need to learn, but also their shortcomings and even traumas with their language learning experiences. I use the word traumas because so far I’ve chiefly worked with adults in one-on-one classes, and they’d already been through some learning experiences before they decided to try having private lessons. Such exchange and understanding of your learner has to be done from the very first time you two have the chance to talk. If you manage to pass this stage successfully, you’re bound to have loads of fun, learning and reflection.

In a one-on-one class, the teacher has to be prepared to cater for that learner in particular. This certainly means being prepared to change your lesson plan entirely if need be. Suppose your student works for a company that has decided – in a meeting right before the class – to send him or her abroad for a meeting, or that there’s a document that needs to be replied to urgently and your student asks for your help? You’ve got two options:

  1. Sure, I can help you with that as much as possible;
  2. Sorry, but that’s not what you’re paying me for.

I myself always take the first option. By making yourself available to help your student with something that truly is meaningful for him or her, you have the chance to create lots of learning opportunities that will stick. After all, they are the ones who have brought the material to class, they’ve got an interest in learning what’s there, which is likely to translate in easier retrieval of what you end up teaching them. In addition to helping them, you yourself may end up learning something new and that is likely to be useful in the future with other learners.

Another point to consider is how resourceful you ought to be as a teacher when you’re teaching one-on-one lessons. In a group, you’ve got different learners, each with his or her expectations, demands and worries. More often than not, they’ll end up having to adapt to one or two activities you’ve decided to do in a class simply because this activity caters best to other learners in the group. At the end of the day, you need to add variety to your classroom activities, but your ideas can be used and reused every now and then. When you’re teaching one student only, things are slightly different.

Each learner has his or her own shortcomings, and it is only by being truly aware of these that you’ll be able to help them achieve their goals. Such awareness can be taken to situations that are really extreme. For instance, I’ve never thought I’d have to teach someone who’s recovering from a stroke. Yet, I’ve been teaching a student for about 5 months now and I can’t tell you just how gratifying it is to witness his progress on a daily basis. This has meant a lot of work on my side, as I had to not only re-read much of what I’d read about it, but I also had to study new things on the development of the brain. Among the many benefits to me, it’s rekindled my interest in cognitive neuroscience and it has forced me to put into use many of the different techniques I’d learnt in my teaching career.

There are also the other (more regular) cases, the ones in which you’ll find yourself dealing with a top executive who needs to prepare for a presentation in English, or for a business trip. There are those who are just interested in learning the ropes of the language to be able to communicate on their next trip to Disney World. There are students who want you to use a course book, and students who despise the use of a course book. Each student is unique, and so should your teaching be. It takes the one-size-fits-all approach completely off the table.

Teaching one on one means being prepared to tackle all possible situations as they come, it means being on the top of your game at all times and being able to think on your feet. Oh, wait a minute…. This is what teaching itself entails. The main difference in a one on one class, then, is the fact that you’ll end up having to develop your bag of tricks a lot further and faster if you are to make things interesting each and every day. Most importantly, you’ll better understand the value that trust, empathy and affection have in learning after you have the chance to work with one-on-one classes.


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