The IATEFL (International Association for Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) conference was held in Liverpool this year, seeing approximately 3000 delegates come together from around the globe to explore, to develop and to learn about the latest trends in English language teaching.
Someone I met at the conference remarked that every year, there always seems to be one or two themes that emerge, perhaps by coincidence or by the ingenious planning of the conference organisers.
For me, this year’s conference embodied these three themes:
1. The importance of soft skills
Talk of how we need to do more than just the teaching of grammar and lexis and help develop our learners soft skills have been prevalent amongst Business English trainers for many years. It was therefore not surprising that ‘the integration of soft skills to prepare learners for the modern workplace was made the theme of the BESIG (Business English Special Interest Group) and the TTedSIG (Teacher Training and Education Special Interest Group) joint PCE (Pre-Conference Event) this year.
However, beyond the Business English teaching world, soft skills, otherwise known as 21st Century skills or life skills, are enjoying the spotlight amongst General English and EAP (English for Academic Purposes) teachers too. A forum on Critical Thinking Skills was held, featuring three talks that looked at practical ideas to integrating critical thinking in the classroom, developing the discerning student, and fostering intercultural awareness.
Tim Goodier and Mike Mayor spoke of the skills needed for jobs in 2030 and how we can help learners cultivate these skills. And there were multiple talks about skills for the workplace, intercultural skills, critical thinking skills and other soft skills.
Then Evan Frendo in his closing plenary talked about the future of ELT and emphasizes that our role is evolving and we need to be focusing a lot more on soft skills needed to help our learners communicate well, e.g. influencing skills, impression management, and teamwork.
Perhaps because my IATEFL talk and my newly-published book Successful International Communication focuses heavily on the importance of soft skills, there is the possibility that I might be biased, but in an age where English is increasingly used as a lingua franca to facilitate global communication, there is no doubt that our job is to oil those wheels of communication by offering students the necessary tools to do the job.
2. Diversity and inclusion
The IP&SEN (Inclusive Practices and Special Educational Needs) SIG was set up three years ago to support teachers with learners who might experience barriers to accessing education. This includes practical strategies for learners with dyslexia or dyspraxia, learners on the autism spectrum, learners who experience bullying, and so on.
This year at IATEFL, the British Council Signature Event dedicated an hour and a half to the key issues of inclusion, exploring an integrated approach to policy, educational culture and classroom practice to supporting learning approaches in different contexts.
But inclusion does not only deal with students with special educational needs. In his plenary speech ‘Gender and sexuality in ELT – inclusive education vs queer pedagogy’, John Gray talked of how inclusion is also about giving recognition to ‘previously erased groups’. Tackling the issue of heteronormality, he explores how our industry and our materials reinforces the notion that heterosexuality is normal and natural, and fail to include the complexity of the real world. This issue was expanded upon by Tyson Seburn in his amusingly-named workshop ‘This talk will make you gay (or your materials anyway)’, where he looked at how we can include LGBTQ+ narratives through an appropriate inclusive approach.
Katherine Bilsborough sums this thread up nicely in her closing plenary speech where she calls for the availability of more materials that reflect the diverse population of learners. Referring to the other talks on inclusion at the conference, Katherine remarks, “learners … should be able to see themselves in their own materials and in their own realities. Why can’t they? ... A lot more needs to be done, and a lot more needs to be done quickly.”
3. Teacher Empowerment and Teacher Autonomy
In the opening plenary of IATEFL 2019, Paula Rebolledo in her talk ‘Teacher Empowerment: Leaving the Twilight Zone’ defines teacher autonomy as a process whereby teachers develop autonomy to make decisions and exercise their professional judgments about how and what to teach. She extends the definition to talk about exercising power over their own professional development and their opportunities to innovate.
The autonomy to innovate was echoed in the talks that offered new ways of doing things, like Melissa Lamb’s thought-provoking talk on taking away input sessions from teaching training courses, talks that explored how we can use WhatsApp, MOOCs, Wikis and Lego with students, and talks that appealed to revised views and approaches to teaching.
But we can only be autonomous when we have the support to do so. This support can come in the form of Directors of Studies and line managers who believe in the power of development and are willing to take a chance on the crazy ideas we have. Or this support could be from colleagues who keep us going in the day-to-day work that we do. But at a conference like IATEFL, we get to know the support of our Personal Learning Network – the network of teachers and friends that come together to inspire and motivate us to carry on.
I was lucky enough to experience the support of my fellow colleagues and friends when I had to bring my eight-month-old baby boy to the IATEFL Conference and deliver two talks with him in my arms. Despite the babysitting help I had enlisted from some very helpful colleagues, my baby refused to settle and I had to ask my audience if they were happy for me to deliver my presentation whilst holding him. The support from my audience, the conference delegates and subsequently my network on social media was overwhelming and empowering in every sense of the word.
I realized how proud I was to be part of an industry that understood the reality of an ELT professional managing their careers and their professional development whilst simultaneously not letting the ball drop on their home life. And because of this support and understanding, I had the freedom and the autonomy to continue learning and sharing my expertise without fearing that I’d be seen as less professional or capable.
Talking about soft skills and intercultural skills with my co-presenter.
When all is said and done, the IATEFL conference to me is about being part of this huge ELT family: a community that not only cares about the same issues but one that also cares for our well-being. This is a community of ELT professionals who empower each other.
Chia Suan Chong
Successful International Communication, 2018