IATEFL Hungary 2009 conference: a look back; Part 1: overall impressions

The conference ended only a few hours ago as I’m starting to write this so it might be too early to draw any serious conclusions but I’ll be back with a more detailed report in the next couple of days – till then, let me share my overall impressions.

The view from the conference venue - photo by Peter Baranyai
The view from the conference venue - photo by Peter Baranyai

I think this was my eighth IATEFL Hungary conference, so I have grounds for comparison. I was there at this conference from opening till close, attended every plenary and went to a talk or workshop in each session. Overall, I think this was the best IATEFL Hungary conference I’ve ever attended – and this is saying a lot, considering the fact that I was involved with the organization of four previous conferences. What made it the best?

Venue: the Balassi Institute in Budapest proved to be a wise choice. Nice location, excellent rooms, all well-equipped.

Programme: this is easily the most important component of every conference. Either I was very lucky (or wise? :)) with my choices or the programme was really this good (clearly, it’s the latter). From time to time, you run into plenaries that you only go to because there’s no choice – not this time. All were interesting and informative, to say the least – more in detail about them in a later post.

Quite a few famous people in the audience at the opening
Quite a few famous people in the audience at the opening - photo by Peter Baranyai

The concurrent sessions were arranged into six slots, eight in each, five in the last; there were also five split sessions with two half-hour sessions in them, bringing the total to 49, unless my calculations are wrong. I find this a decent choice; although I know that we have had conferences with 10 or even 11 concurrent sessions, but that might be too many to choose from. I also know that there have been conferences with more than six concurrent session slots but it’s better to put convenient breaks between sessions than having to run from one workshop to another. I don’t know if this relative scarcity of presentations was due to the volume of submitted abstracts or it happened because the readers were strict but in the end it worked out very well – it’s better to have fewer but higher quality presentations. I think the right balance was found; I only heard very positive feedback from fellow participants. All the workshops and talks I attended were excellent and useful – even the one I very strongly disagreed with (again, more about this and the other talks in a later post).

The SIG afternoon: Definitely one of the highlights of the conference (I’ll be saying this for too many things, I’m afraid). The concept of SIG afternoons was first introduced at the Esztergom conference three years ago and it has worked very well since then. Not surprisingly, I’ve always attended the ICT SIG event, and this year was no exception. What made this year different was that for the first time we were not only in our old circle of converts but had a decent amount of new people. 32 colleagues took part, which was nice – other SIGs didn’t have a lot bigger audience either, which I think is one of the signs that ICT has finally come of age in Hungary too, but I’ll elaborate on the ICT issues of the conference in a later post.

Organization: I can only congratulate the organizers and thank the committee for their hard work; everything went smoothly. This is why I was disappointed to see a relatively low turnout, especially at the opening and close. I know that a Friday afternoon might not be the best time of the week for an English teacher, but to see Éva Illés start delivering her excellent opening plenary to an audience of 44 people was disheartening, even if people started trickling in during her talk. This presentation would have deserved a much larger audience and those who were not there should regret missing it. I didn’t know at that time that Gordon Lewis’ fantastic closing plenary will receive the same number of people. Every English teacher would have benefited enormously from these two presentations. I know that the slides will be published on the IATEFL Hungary website but it’s not the same thing. The committee did everything to get the word out, they put together an excellent programme at a very convenient and beautiful location, invited internationally renowned speakers, and then the largest crowd was around 140-150 for Herbert Puchta’s Saturday mid-day plenary (I didn’t count the audience at the plenary given by Tamás Kiss, again an excellent talk, should have been an eye-opener for most). This is not what these speakers deserved and not what the organizers deserved. I don’t know what else they could have done – perhaps we need to start begging each English teacher personally now to come? I know this sounds like when I was at university and our teachers started complaining about too few of us being present at their lecture – to us, who were actually there; but of course you can only talk to those who will listen… Also, let’s not forget that there were 25 nations represented at the conference (probably the highest number ever), which is excellent news – but not really if you realise that you have to deduct the number of international participants from the total to get the number of Hungarian teachers of English taking part…

The same goes for IATEFL Hungary membership, which now stands at around 420 (has been increasing recently). A decent size, considering the fact that it’s probably the highest ever, and even if it isn’t, I’m sure it’s never been above 500. But in a country of well over 50,000 English teachers, 22,000 of them working in public education, this is again disheartening. Especially if we consider the fact that this is the only professional association for teachers of English. The current committee has been working very hard for the past couple of years to increase membership, and they have managed to recruit quite a few new members – again, hats off to them, unconditionally. When I was on the committee, our priority was also to increase membership – and the same has been true for all committees for the past 20 years. And this is the result: between .5 and 1 per cent, depending on how you define your target audience. And don’t tell me it’s because of the price. Publishers’ free conferences rarely attract more than 300 people, usually fewer – and you mostly see the same faces there too. The interest is just not there, it seems. You can’t say that all the committees in the past 20 years have failed to come up with anything convincing – clearly it’s not their fault. I’ll go out on a limb and say that maybe it’s time to accept the fact that the vast majority of English teachers in Hungary is simply not interested in cooperation and building a community, so maybe we should rearrange our priorities and stop using the scarce resources to try and increase membership – there will be more left for catering to the needs of the existing members.

I just had to say these things because I was really sad to see the most important professional event of the year attract a relatively low number of Hungarian colleagues, especially when it was so great. Those of us who were there definitely enjoyed an excellent conference – the last component that made the whole experience so good is…

Andy Rouse in the middle - photo by Peter Baranyai
Andy Rouse in the middle - photo by Peter Baranyai

The social programme: I must confess that this is where I missed an event but from what I heard, Friday night’s musical entertainment was a huge success. But luckily I did go to Saturday’s Pecha Kucha night, organised by Lindsay Clandfield. This was the first such event in Hungary, and I’m sure there will be many more to follow. It is a stress test for the presenters, and enormous fun for the audience – I don’t remember the last time I laughed so much at a professional event; most probably at a talk given by Peter Medgyes – and this comparison should say a lot about the quality.

One more thing has to be mentioned in connection with the conference: in keeping with the tradition of publishing a “mELTing pot Extra” for each conference, this year’s thematic issue was on ICT. Now, if reading this magazine doesn’t convince an English teacher that it’s worth joining IATEFL Hungary, nothing will. I’ll write a separate post about it later – till then I can only say one thing: grab a copy if you haven’t done so yet. Mark Andrews and Anna Csí­ky did a great job – you’ll learn a lot from reading it.

It would be nice to read other participants’ comments; also, if you have also written a report on this conference, I’d like to link to it. And don’t forget that I’ll be back with a post on the talks I attended, another one on the ICT issues raised at the conference, plus a third one on mELTing pot Extra.

In closing, let me congratulate and thank the committee and the organisers again for all their hard work.


13 thoughts on “IATEFL Hungary 2009 conference: a look back; Part 1: overall impressions

  1. Hi Elek,
    thanks for your kind words and I believe your thoughts are worth considering – this should be something IATEFL-H could build on. I’m very happy we have a lot of positive feedback: I seriously believe this should be an excellent springboard for IATEFL-H to grow. Thanks for letting us know that our efforts have been worthwhile…

  2. Thanks very much for the kind words about the Pecha Kucha evening! I had a blast too, and agree that some of those presentations were wonderful. High praise indeed to draw comparisons with the great Peter Medgyes. I’m honoured!

  3. An excellent general summary of the conference, and although I’ve only been to 4 out of the last 5 conferences, I would agree that this was by far the best in that period. As you say, it’s a great shame that more Hungarian teachers could not be sufficiently motivated to attend but I suspect that this is due to the parlous undervaluing of education and educators in this part of the world, and the consequent extremely low morale of teachers all over the country.
    I think I can guess which workshop you strongly disagreed with, though 😉

  4. Thanks, Elek, for sharing your reflections on the Conference. It’s always interesting to read someone else’s perspective on an event that I was also part of. (This, for example, is a very good use of technology, I think.)

    I agree with you, the Conference was very well organised with very high quality workshops and talks. I think all four plenaries were excellent, and they complemented each other nicely.
    It would be interesting to create some links among the four. For example, Herbert Puchta talked about the transformational power of the teacher, and the importance of creating a climate and culture that students want to belong to. It would be interesting to explore how this relates to on-line teaching. … And the iceberg metaphor that Tamás talked about. How do the values and beliefs at the bottom of the iceberg relate to teachers’ attitudes about using technology?

    After the Sunday morning plenary on ‘Technology in search of Pedagogy’ ( I really love that title, by the way), I attended an excellent session on Emotional Intelligence. So I felt like my Sunday morning was nicely rounded, well balanced. After Gordon Lewis’s thought provoking, ideas-packed talk, I needed to activate a different part of my mind (soul? .. heart?)and give my attention to questions like …. how can we help our students be better at impulse control. … I find it useful to have questions about the use of technology run parallel on my mind to questions about something seemingly very different …

    So many exciting things to think about thanks to the Conference!!!!


  5. Elek!
    Bang on! What a super conference in every way! And what a shame that so few of the 50,000 teachers of English in Hungary (really so many???) were there. There is a malaise…perhaps teachers feel unrecognised in society…things are getting tougher…pay is not going up…
    It is the same in Austria, next door. TEA is a really great organisation and did have years of blooming but now it is a struggle to gather teachers together.
    Meanwhile, a thousand thanks to our committee, for working so hard on our behalf.

  6. Hi Elek,

    would like to respond to this part of your post:

    maybe it’s time to accept the fact that the vast majority of English teachers in Hungary is simply not interested in cooperation and building a community, so maybe we should rearrange our priorities and stop using the scarce resources to try and increase membership – there will be more left for catering to the needs of the existing members.

    When we had our pre-conference planning meeting at Luppa Sziget I said I would recruit students helpers from the methodology groups I have taught over the last few years. In the end 19 people came and I will paste in bits of some of the feedback from one student below. We should never give up on co-operation and building community and IATEFL is an organisation with a history, infrastructure, hooked up internationally and with enormous standing within our profession worldwide. Thanks for the great post and taking the time to put it together. And to echo Herbert and Margit, there is and importance of creating an IATEFL that future teachers want to belong to.

    For me this conference was the greatest experience for years in spite of the fact that I have participated in other conferences too (but those were organised by ELTE). I was responsible for room 327 where the topic was teacher training. I had thought that it would be the less interesting topic for me as I’m a secondary school teacher and I have nothing to do with teacher trainees. But I soon realised I had been wrong. The topic actually turned out to be very interesting. There was a woman from the Czech Rep. telling us that they have few trained teachers especiallly in the field of language teaching. Another woman came from Essex, who was talking about their programme about training non-native English teachers during 1 schoolyear. And there were two people from the Netherlands, who have a 7-year training for teachers, including the requirement of being able to evaluate themselves as teachers. It was all very interesting and it gave me a lot of ideas The greatest thing during the conference was when I saw the people in my room being inspired by each other. I felt sorry for not having the chance to participate in the chat but I still could feel the energy they gained from the others. They changed namecards (is that the word???) and I’m sure that they will keep in touch. Before the conference I had thought that you are an exceptional man who has a lot of friends from a lot of countries and I had been sure that this is because of your personality and that I am just not a person like this. I admired your ability for being so open. But now I think that I could do the same and today I’m not afraid of the idea of going to another country and teach there – actually I’m thinking about going to GB and teach English for immigrants just like Éva Illés did it. After all: why not? I have the qualification, I love teaching, I like England, I’m interested in other cultures and I’d like to have a try.
    Otherwise, I liked the whole atmosphere. Everybody was cheerful and full of energy. They were open to everything and my ex-teachers from the university greeted me as we were old friends (actually, I met my secondary school teacher who still didn’t forgive me to become an English teacher – she thought I was a disaster in English – and she was the only one who was an exception). I think this is generated by you and your colleagues there and you have a really good effect on the participants as well. So I think that IATEFL is a very useful orgainsation and I think more teachers should have membership. If I were you, I would have several smaller conferences which are only for primary or secondary school teachers. In these events I would make it possible to join. In my school there are 9 English teachers (plus me) and I think 4 or 5 of them would join if they knew more about IATEFL.


  7. Dear Elek,

    I’m not sure we actually met at the conference, but let me comment on your post, too.

    I attended the conference as a student helper, and I also made a small presentation with Mark Andrews at one of the Friday evening sessions. This was the first ever teaching conference I’ve been to, and I had the time of my life!
    When Mark first asked me whether I’d agree to make a short presentation at the conference, I was considering saying no, because I found the idea extremely scary… presenting in front of top methodologists… you know, with not even a degree in my pocket. Well, am I happy to have changed my mind!

    The moment I arrived at the conference, I noticed the leisure atmosphere, and soon, after finding some familiar faces, started to calm down. Then the session in our room, the Library, started, and we were soon asked to do some group work, which I joined, and after just a few minutes made 3 acquaintances from 3 different countries (Lindsey, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the surprised expression on your face when Mark pointed at me saying it’ll be me continuing the session after the break:) ). Those few minutes of discussion opened me up, and helped me relax, and by the time I went out front to hold the presentation, I was facing many familiar faces among the audience, and felt totally at ease. I LOVED every moment of our session, and probably experienced some of the most thrilling moments of my life, standing out there, talking to and with the teachers in the room.
    Saturday was no less fun, and the Pecha Kucha evening was an absolute blast! I don’t remember ever having laughed this much in such a short time! I was actually crying of laughter by the end.

    I feel extremely lucky for being a student of Mark’s and having been given the opportunity to attend (and present at!) the conference. Were it not for Mark, I probably wouldn’t have heard of the conference or IATEFL. You know, even when you’re a student at ELTE, doing Methodology courses, it’s not something you necessarily come across…

    And here’s my point: looking back now, I know how much I would have missed, had I not been given this opportunity! It meant a lot to me. Meeting a lot of teachers from all around the world and taking a glimpse at their ideas inspired me, and I found it reassuring and motivating to realize that there’s a well-organized, ambitious and enthusiastic organization supporting the English teachers of Hungary.

    So please, don’t stop recruiting people and take this opportunity from them! Sure, there will always be uninterested ones, and I know how disheartening that can be, but I’m sure there are also many out there who would gladly take part, if only they knew about IATEFL and what it means. I would suggest making a PechaKucha on IATEFL, recording it, and sending it to any target group. I’m quite sure no one could resist that:)

    Thanks to all the organizers, and I hope to meet many of you again soon!

  8. Thank you very much for all your kind comments! It was especially great to hear from Mark’s students – so there *is* some hope, it seems :).
    Will try to get back with a more detailed response later.

  9. Hi Elek,
    That was a really nice summary of what happened there and even though I’ve been ill ever since, it was worth every minute of it 🙂 I really hope the next one will be even better!
    Take care!

  10. I sort of gate-crashed the party – sorry The International Conference – but was officially there on behalf of the EL Gazette (to take some photos). I will keep this brief. I go to a lot of such events and this was one of the best organised in terms of its variety of sessions, entertainment and the congenial/informal atmosphere where the delegates were able to chat with numerous EFL ‘stars’.

    I did not see Livia looking stressed at any stage; sign of a good actor? Perhaps, but also a sign of good leadership and delegation. The student helpers were indeed that; very helpful, and there was always someone friendly and charming at the reception desk. The Canadian Conference Crier – as I dubbed him – is in the wrong profession. Give him an oscar or the equivalent for Conference Chairing. IATEFL could do with him at every conference.

    In terms of trying to pick a nit….. well, only ONE glass of red wine at the reception!HINT HINT to Livia or should that be addressed to David Hill?

    THose of you wondering what happened to all those photos that I took…. well they are with LIvia and some will be uploaded onto this website soon whatever soon means. THose who requested photos from me please be patient.

    Andrew’s remark about the lack of numbers… Well, I have heard of chap from Nazareth who started with only 12 and the rest is history…
    Spread the word.

    Thank you to all (organisers and delegates) who made my first experience of Hungary IATEFL very pleasant. I hope to be able to attend again. Lindsay and I discussed the possibility of a PECHA KUCHA based on EFL and the Kama Sutra (hmmm) Watch this space. That should pull in a few more punters , Andrew.

    Finally, on leaving the conference, I bumped into Gordon Lewis in the ‘watering-hole’ of his hotel where we did our best to enhance the profits of some brewery called Bitburger Pils. Thanks Gordon.

    Best wishes from a cloudy London


  11. Dear friends,
    I had a great time in Budapest at your conference. Since I have written about my impressions for our (Serbian) newsletter, I am inviting you to visit our site and follow the link for our electronic newsletter.
    I do hope to see some of you at Belgrade conference in May.
    With warm memories, Sladjana.

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