A very interesting blog post published a couple of days ago by David Dodgson got me thinking about teachers’ conferences and what they are about. I am not talking about the very large scale conferences organised by IATEFL or TESOL, but rather events organised by local associations in various parts of the world, with more or less success. I have myself been involved in organising such conferences for my local association of teachers, TESOL Greece, of which I was a board member in the distant past. It seems, though, things have changed quite drastically since then.
Teachers’ conferences some time ago
This was an era before the world wide web was invented: there were no blogs, no internet forums, no tweets, no chats, no online events, so teachers really depended on such conferences to get information on what was going on in the profession, to share ideas with colleagues and to further their own professional development. A teachers’ conference, even in a small country like Greece, was an important event, which attracted quite a few hundred teachers as well as some of the biggest names in English Language Teaching globally. This may also have been due to the fact that there were not that many ELT conferences worldwide, ELT publishers did not run as many road shows as they do these days, free seminars for teachers sponsored by publishers, examination bodies and language school chains were very sparse, and perhaps the big names were not in such high demand and had time and energy to devote to preparing and delivering original talks and workshops even if the conference was not very widely publicised.
Organising a teachers’ conference in the 21st century
It seems that organising a conference of this scope now is a completely different story. At a time when face to face conferences are becoming less and less relevant, it has become more essential than ever to ensure that they are attended by a large number of people, so that the conference fees collected can at least meat the ever rising cost of the conference itself. However, to attract those large numbers, the conference must be worth its salt. As a bare minimum, I would expect the following:
- The keynote speakers must be people who have something to say, who can say what they have to say attractively, and who have not said the exact same thing in the exact same way before.
- The focus of the talks and workshops cannot be to promote a commercial product or service (such as a book, an exam or a course) but must be on teacher development: the exchange of ideas, the evaluation of current practices, the discussion of new developments in our field, and so on.
- The premises must be decent, the equipment the presenters need must be in good working order and the room available should be adequate for the turnout expected.
But face to face conferences have become very expensive: venue costs are rising (a conference centre in Athens, Greece, can charge € 20,000 + for a two-day conference attended by 400 people or so); most keynote speakers ask for hefty honoraria in addition to their travel and accommodation expenses; conference publicity, invitations, badges, etc., can also cost quite a bit; insurance may well be another unavoidable cost; and there may well be a need for paid admin staff to assist in the conference (security, ushers, etc.) in addition to the volunteers who organise it. So even if the conference managed to attract 400 people, and they each paid a € 70 conference fee for the privilege of attending, the costs would still not be met.
Enter the sponsors
What is a poor teachers’ organisation to do? Seek sponsors, of course! This is how most small-scale conferences manage to survive! This would not be a problem if the sponsors were hotel chains, airlines, mobile phone companies or e-shops; this kind of sponsor, however, is highly unlikely to be interested in a teachers’ conference with a few hundred attendees. The people who are interested in reaching a few hundred English teachers are those who have things to sell to the teachers and their students: ELT publishers, exam providers, language school chains, teacher training institutions, and so on.
Let’s have a look at two examples of ELT conference sponsorship:
- The conference organisers will naturally ask ELT publishers if they can sponsor a speaker; the publisher will equally naturally sponsor the author of one of their latest course books to give a talk and indirectly (or occasionally not so indirectly) promote their book.
- The conference organisers may ask a large teacher training institution to offer their premises; the institution will gladly host the conference as it gives them the unique chance of promoting their services to four hundred of their most likely customers, i.e. teachers evidently interested in professional development and willing to pay for it!
Exit the point of the conference
Clearly, there is no such thing as a free lunch and there is no such thing as a disinterested sponsor. The ELT-related businesses that sponsor teachers’ conferences do so for the exact same reasons that businesses that have nothing to do with ELT do not: because they are focused on what there is to gain. Relying exclusively on sponsors to pay for the venue and determine the content of the conference inevitably results in a conference that will, more or less shamelessly, promote the products and services of the sponsors rather than the professional development of the attendees.
Sooner or later, conference goers do realise precisely how irrelevant all this is to their own development. If insult has been added to injury and they have also been asked to pay for the privilege of having products and services advertised and sold to them, then they may well feel cheated out of their money and start to resent the conference, the conference organisers and the association that is behind the conference. And if they have made the mistake (as I know I have) of actively participating in the conference by presenting a paper or leading a workshop which they have carefully prepared so that no product or service is promoted which they themselves may have an interest in promoting, then I would argue that they rightly feel doubly cheated: out of both their money and their self-respect.
The more teachers realise how irrelevant many of these conferences are, the more commercialised the conferences have to become, as the only alternative to commercialisation is to organise a conference that people will want to go to, will need to go to, and will be willing to pay for. Otherwise, there eventually comes a point when even the ELT-related sponsors lose interest in the few faithful (or perhaps naïve) conference goers, withdraw their support and the conference dies the death that it should have died some time before.