On organizing ELT conferences and events

This is part three of a three part series on conferences. The first two parts looked at what attendees want and what what presenters want from ELT conferences. In this post I will share survey responses related to planning and organizing conferences or other events. If you click on the first post linked above you can find out about the background of this survey. Once again my thanks go to those who took the time to answer the questions (and he who helped created the questions). As might be expected there were less responses to the section of the survey related to organizing events. I hope and believe that the responses here might be of use to those planning events I share them with that in mind. Comments (including your additions) and questions most welcome.

As a conference organizer, how do you define your goals?

  • Forget about the “WOW!”, just get rid of the “Arrrrgh!”
  • Everyone should want to come back next year is one measure. Sometimes financial. Did we get enough people in to cover costs? But, ideally there should be a good vibe.
  • At the beginning of the process, I talk with the other planners about what we want to see as a result of the conference. Sometimes we start with problems or challenges that we see in our teaching environments. This helps us put together a conference theme and a list of possible speakers.
  • Looking at my aims.
  • With a team.

As a conference organizer, how do you determine how to allocate resources?

  • Get the basics (location / facilities / advertising / printing) covered and prioritise from there on the continuum from ‘Absolutely essential’ through to ‘Nice to have’.
  • According to regulations.
  • I look at budgets from previous conferences and then adapt them to the needs and the numbers of expected guests. The cost of the venue often determines how much room we have for other resource-demanding things.
  • Tough one. And one I’m not usually that involved in. Try to be fair to everyone as far as things like people who sign up commit early get get the spaces they deserve. But, also try to allocate some resources (presentation slots, features, etc) for people “on their way up” not only the “names.” But, you usually do need name “star” presenters too.

As a conference organizer, how do you evaluate proposals?

  • There are rubrics etc. but a lot of it comes down to a gut feeling at times. Usually have to deal with too many seemingly good proposals.
  • According to appeal and feasibility.
  • I create or borrow a rubric, which I distribute to the proposal vetting team, and when I am more organized, I also link to the rubric from the proposal submission form. Since I have never had a huge number of proposals to deal with, all of the reviewers give comments about all of the proposals. The comments are summarized and sent back to the presenters with requests for revision if necessary.
  • RRR – Recent, Relevant, Reliable: recent/new ELT info; relevance to the local ELT context; reliable presenters who are knowledgeable on the topic.
  • I wish I knew the answer…

As a conference organizer, how do you determine prices?

  • Always a negotiation. The past few years I have been on the side of “raise the rates” but that does have negative consequences too. In an ideal world, sky high rates for those who can afford them, but coupons, discounts or rebates to keep the community diverse.
  • We charge what we think people will be willing to pay. That is often determined by the prices of local conferences of a similar scope.
  • Estimate costs and divide by expected participants – compare with similar conferences.
  • According to cost and averages charges for similar events.

As a conference organizer, what, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge in preparing a conference? How have you addressed it (assuming it can be addressed)?

  • Sourcing great speakers.
  • Getting people to attend, promotion.
  • Getting help.
  • My biggest headache is fundraising because I hate, hate, hate asking for money. My second biggest headache is publicity because I am by nature much more talented at keeping secrets than shouting from rooftops. The best thing I can do with these challenges is work with a team. Either my teammates will compensate for my weaknesses with their own strengths or my fear of letting my teammates down will make the challenges seem less fearsome by comparison.
  • Getting the word out to as many people as possible, and even more so to the “right” people (people you want to have come who should be there but might not be if they don’t know or don’t know far enough in advance) as far ahead of time as possible, but not therefore lock everything down too far in advance. It’s a trade off.

Additional thoughts as a conference organizer:

  • No good deed goes unpunished. No matter what you do, people will complain endlessly, so once the opening words of the conference are uttered try to just enjoy it. There isn’t much you can do at that point to change the direction. But if you are enjoying it, others will too. Real actual issues of safety, execution, etc need attention, but try not to pay too much attention to the squeaky wheels. Much better to pay attention to someone, anyone else.
  • Have a nice day ~ : )


What ELT conference attendees want

WordItOut-word-cloud-1414484Some time ago my friend, colleague, one time co-presenter and writer, and two time guest (1, 2) blogger on this very blog Michael Free contacted me. He wanted to get a conversation started about what people want from conferences here on ELT RRR, writing:

Some of us ELTs have to attend them, others don’t.
Some teachers (really) like them, others (really) don’t. 

Speaking for myself, I love a good conference. A chance to hear about new research, talk shop, and hopefully pick up a practical technique or two for the classroom as well as a few books. Of course, my reasons might not match with your reasons. So, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions.

Before I do, I’d like to tell you why I’m asking. I’ve recently been asked to help organise a fairly large conference (a solidly packed single-day event, if you must know). In beginning to put this together, I’m wondering what, for you, makes the conference experience worthwhile. 

I thought it would be helpful to start off the process with a (completely unscientific) survey so that the responses to the survey could give readers something to think about and add to (as well as agree and disagree with). Thank you very much to the 30 people who responded! The questions were a joint effort but most of them were from Michael Free (thank you Michael). Below you can find the survey questions and the answers related to attending conferences with some minor edits for clarity and organization. Responses on presenting and organizing conferences will be in subsequent posts.

As you read the responses I wonder, what do you think of them?  What would you add? What would you cut? What is interesting or surprising for you?

Background information

The respondents were based in:

South Korea (5)
Japan (3)
The UK (3)
The US (2)
In terms of experience attending conferences 59.3% of the respondents have attended 11 or more conferences which gives an indication of the level of experience with conferences from respondents. 14.8% have attended 7-10 conferences, 18.5% have attended 4-6 conferences, and 7.4% of respondents have attended 2-3 conferences.

As a conference attendee, what do you want in a conference?

  • Opportunities to discuss what we’ve heard, but informally and not because that’s part of a session.
  • To learn new and inspiring things and to meet good people.
  • An interesting range of presentations that are not scheduled before 9:30am. Not too many parallel sessions because the odds of me wanting to really see than one or two of the presentations end up being very high.
  • To be energised, inspired, learn new things
  • Pleasant venue (comfortably heated rooms, not a massive space to trek around, convenient location, etc.), quality talks (original, well-researched, professionally presented) and well organised i.e. speakers encouraged to stick to timings, technology working, no ridiculous queues for coffee!
  • How many answers do I get? All of the following are important: a good venue, good organization, friendly hosts, great presentations (even though that is often out of the hands of the organizers) interesting group of participants. Something new to learn. A good audience if presenting. Wifi.
  • Well-grounded, well-argued, well-illustrated presentations – preferably innovative
  • New ideas, knowledge, support, time to network, etc.
  • “Big Name” plenary speakers! Current and relevant info about ELT; networking opportunities; freebies from publishers!
  • To learn something
  • Yes: Thought-provoking ideas backed by data/theory; new & practical classroom activities.
    No: preaching to the choir (please present at a conference targeted for administration instead).
  • Good ideas and good thinking, preferably backed up by evidence
  • New approaches on ELT
  • Variety of topics and session types.
  • Interesting sessions, interesting people, food & drinks, maybe fans (‘groupies’) recognising me
  • Healthy balance between plenaries, sessions, and free time to talk to people. Spacious but clearly laid-out venue. Engagement with participants via social networks (official updates and shares!)
  • To come away having learned stuff or not wasted time.
  • The last few conferences that I have been to have been a little unsatisfying from a presentations point of view. I wonder if this is less a function of poor presentations than just where I am in my development right now, and also the fact that it’s actually pretty difficult to tackle a topic in depth in 45 minutes or so. I also can’t remember the last time I saw a decent plenary. Recently I have got much more out of conversations at conferences, and especially those with newer teachers. I’m keen to see what happens with the demo classes at ExciteELT: I think those could be very interesting. Overall then, I’d say I want a chance to deal with the smaller stuff of teaching, that doesn’t always make it to the “big idea” presentation stage.
  • Interesting presentations, good research, strong speakers
  • Thought provoking and inspirational ideas for improved teaching, opportunities to discuss and network with colleagues, learn about R&D, clarification on any government changes in immigration law, visas and exams.
  • Networking opportunities and exposure to a variety of points of view.
  • Useful thought provoking stuff
  • Knowledge and meet others
  • Practical ideas based on theoretical knowledge
  • Something different. Something new. Something true.
  • New teaching ideas, current research, connections with other teachers
  • Materials or books
  • If a session is practical, lots of take-home ideas. If it’s theoretical, I want it to be really theoretical and high-level, not banal or oversimplified.

As a conference attendee, what is absolutely essential?

  • Good coffee that’s not outrageously expensive (for reals).
    A very practical glance-and-go conference handbook-schedule with accurate, quick-glance/one line summary of each presentation.
  • Good visuals
  • A variety of useful workshops, exchange of ideas with colleagues.
  • Interesting conferences and events organization
  • Theoretical knowledge
  • Good organization. Without that, the rest (above) can get lost. Ok, and wifi. But seriously, a conference team that works well.
  • Accurate locations and room numbers in the conference program, a variety of topics addressed
  • A location that is easily accessible from an airport in abroad and a major train station of in Japan. 10 minute breaks between presentations. A welcome reception for networking/bonding with others.
  • A variety of presenters.
  • Interesting and varied sessions and that the summary is accurate about what we’ll hear.
  • Conference schedule shouldn’t choke the attendees.
  • Interesting talks
  • Good organization
  • Good organization -sessions in the correct rooms, not many cancellations, a good schedule to plan what to attend.
  • Range/Variety
  • A wide choice of quality non-commercial talks, workshops, etc
  • Learning something
  • I thought about this, and I don’t think anything is totally essential (not even a venue, if you don’t include the internets in that definition). If I am there physically, somewhere to charge gadgets is probably top of my priority list.
  • Proximity to restaurants, WiFi
  • Clear programme and lay-out of venue, WiFi
  • That the learning is useful and relevant, although not always mainstream. Easy access and good facilities.
  • Learning something, meeting people.
  • A chance to network
  • People talking about more than what’s usually talked about. I get pretty tired of hearing the same old things all over the place all the time. I want to hear people sharing what works for them in their particular context – especially if it’s some outrageous thing that should not really work but does.
  • Transparency in the conference abstracts; NO disguised marketing
  • One decent talk minimum.
  • Current and relevant info about ELT in presentations by great speakers.

As a conference attendee what is useful, but not essential?

  • Publisher/promotional talks. I know they pay the bills, but they usually have to bribe people to attend and have very little bearing on practice.
  • Bookstores and editorials showrooms
  • Wifi? Coffee. These help but anyone can live without them.
  • A bag and printed schedule
  • A job searching center, with interviewing, can be a really great add-on.
  • Good food and a lot of coffee on-site
  • I quite enjoyed the wine and cheese event at this year’s [KOTESOL] International Conference. I’d like to see that kind of stuff encouraged more, but with more of a teaching focus. Kind of like a chillout room at the conference where the interested can go and find people to chat to.
  • Good coffee. If it’s not on-site, it’s essential to be able to get some close by.
  • Food options around =)
  • Lots of Q & A time
  • Discounts on books during the book fair.
  • Places to meet other people
  • Convenient location
  • Free stuff.
  • Freebies from publishers.
  • Commercial talks. I rarely (if ever) go to them, though that could be just me 😉
  • Boards
  • Updates on relevant government legislation: any new or changed requirements; updates on R&D.
  • Book exhibition
  • Venue in an interesting, easily accessible location.
  • Solid vetting of speakers~no terrible presentations
  • meeting other teachers
  • Exhibition

As a conference attendee, what do you usually hope to take away from the conference?

  • New ideas for research and teaching
  • Ideas, useful contacts
  • New ideas for content, methods, projects…
  • New connections; broader perspectives; new learning; renewed enthusiasm for teaching.
  • Ideas for improved teaching and a feeling of being part of a mutually supportive group of professionals.
  • Memories of and ideas from conversations with other teachers; new acquaintances; ideas that would speak to me and that I will be ready to follow up on
  • Ideas, information, excitement,
  • A new way to think about something
  • New ways of looking at things, new skills and new/stronger friendships with people in my field.
  • Lots of new connections and at least one new idea.
  • Something I didn’t expect is always welcome. New ideas, better ideas, new people. Especially that last one.
  • One idea to use.
  • Some reviews of speeches
  • Directions for further reading/investigation
  • Increased motivation
  • Big thoughts, questions, connections.
  • A sense of community. Thought-provoking ideas; a few handouts, links, activities, or articles to revisit later.
  • Lots of ideas + some connections for networking.
  • Lots of things! For me though, what goes on between sessions (meeting peers, networking, etc) is just as valuable as the timetabled stuff
  • Ideas on how to improve as a teacher or questions to reflect on my teaching
  • An idea to think about more later and/or an inspiring way to approach learning.
  • Good ideas and new thinking
  • New teaching ideas, current research, connections with other teachers
  • New ideas, professional contacts, memories, etc.
  • New ideas for classes
  • New ideas for practice and new perspectives on practice
  • Inspiration
  • Ideas about new trends, a sense of what is/isn’t working for teachers in ELT (and why/why not)

In another survey potential attendees said they prefer quality speakers over speakers with “star power.” What, for you, are the characteristics that make a quality speaker?”A related, indeed overlapping, question is “What makes for a quality presentation?”

  • A quality speaker has a good story to tell and can tell it clearly and maybe adjust on the fly if needed. The difference between quality and star power is if you feel like you are getting the same attention to the work of presenting and preparation if there are 5 people in the room or 150.
  • It’s kind of like quality teaching – the speaker lets the audience know where they are starting from, builds from there, encourages (but does not force) participation, and leaves the audience feeling like they have explored a new way to think about something.
  • It should make people think. Shouldn’t be only theoretical.
  • A presentation that delivers what is promised, well-organized materials, engaging content.
  • I get why someone would say they want quality speakers instead of speakers with star power and yet it’s those people with star power who often bring in people who might otherwise not be there to share ideas that might not otherwise get shared. When we get a Tom Farrell or a Dorothy Zemach or a Shelly Sanchez Terrell or a Penny Ur (giving quality presentations and working with people throughout the conference) then that’s something good. And what makes for a quality presentation? Real ideas, connection with the audience, a bit inspiration. and confidence (but not over-confidence) in the ideas being shared. I particularly like speakers who say things like “well, I could be wrong but …”
  • Theoretical background to what they are saying.
  • NOT preaching to the choir — it is absolutely the worst to be told in detail all about things in education that are primarily out of the hands of teachers to change and in the hands of administration to be informed about (in other words, wrong audience for the content; don’t tell us what we already know but can do very little about).
  • A sense of wanting to help people to do stuff better in their classrooms.
  • Quality presentation includes questions, visuals, discussion and a q&a session
  • A quality pres is one that a) tells me something I don’t know and b) is not just someone’s opinion. Also, enough with the ‘5 ways to use a [tech] in class.’
  • Good speakers engage with the audience instead of preaching. Their slides are not all full of text, but they may choose to share some important quotes or other written information that is a little text heavy. Good speakers Don’t have to be funny, but humour is appreciated.
  • Relevance and preparation. Knowledge of the audience.
  • People who know the area they are talking about in great detail, can connect different ideas. Someone who makes even a potentially boring topic interesting and engaging. I don’t want to see a presentation by someone who has just had a look in a few of the common ELT textbooks. I can read the texts myself
  • While I’m guilty of responding “Big Name” presenters to the first question, I have certainly attended conferences where the “Big Name” presentation was not particularly relevant (or in my opinion “good”) to me or my teaching situation. However, it may have been great for another so each to their own – participants can always move around. The bottom line is this: Depth of knowledge from a subject matter expert is essential. A presenter with character will certainly go a long way but (excuse my French) attendees can smell bullshit a mile away.
  • An innovative topic
  • Confidence, good timing, a small number of carefully chosen key points, time at the end for questions (that are thoughtfully answered), and the ability to still deliver the talk if PowerPoint falls over.
  • A quality speaker for me is someone who knows their subject, is passionate about it, and delivers it in an engaging way. A quality talk is well prepared, researched thoroughly, rehearsed, and highly relevant to the audience it is pitched at.
  • Quality speaker: a speaker who knows the topic well and communicates effectively. A quality presentation: The presentation flows logically and involves more than platitudes. Concrete examples are given.
  • An enthusiasm to communicate something they feel strongly about. It doesn’t matter if they have “star power” or not.
  • New ideas, comfortable speaking, solid ‘presentation skills’, aware of the audience
  • A quality speaker, for me, does not overuse jargonisms, does not sound superior, does not state the obvious. A quality speaker shares stories. A quality presentation is honest and feels right, because the presenter, again, has a story to tell. A quality presentation is NOT a dry presentation of research data.
  • Someone who knows their topic well and who understands their attendees’ needs. Someone who won’t beat about the bush, but would use their time to maximum effect.
  • Passion, knowledge, interactivity, preparation, respect of time limits, clear and appealing visuals.
  • Effective communicators with a clear message that links the theory to the practice and gives me something I can use in the classroom
  • Concision, NOT reading aloud, precise timing, discussion time, economical and unobtrusive use of resources e.g. PowerPoint, humour
  • Well planned, prepared and rehearsed. That they have something to share – something they’ve tried, researched or thought about – that’s worth passing on.
  • Knowledge of practical realities.
  • Wit, humour – but not at the expense of content, content, knowledge of the topic, occasional references to research, possibly mentions of and links to other sessions presented at the same conference and last but by no means not least well designed PPT/Prezi slides

Have you ever seen anything that made a presentation particularly fantastic in your opinion?

  • Yes, when speakers interact with the audience
  • The above and elements of surprise.
  • Ideas presented in thought-provoking ways. Ideas that are informed by theory, research, or experience that serve as a spring-board for trying it yourself.
    NOT pedantic, but well-informed.
    Brief chances during a presentation to talk about, process, or experience the content with others in the audience/colleagues.
    When a presenter or their posse shuts down that one kook who is asking unrelated questions/trying to upstage/control the presentation inappropriately (the more swiftly and diplomatically they do so, the greater the “teacher take-away”!).
  • Speaker getting into the crowd and talking.
  • Fact packed, challenged preconceptions, and funny
  • I remember a very satisfying pronunciation talk where the guy basically admitted he had no idea how to teach it, and just turned it into a big sharing thing. I thought that was cool.
  • Paul Nation (quality star power) giving a 90 minute plenary without notes or PowerPoint slides. He has such presence you just want to believe everything he says and yet … I also once saw a presentation from a completely unknown person (meaning I have no idea who it was really) which was all about how she took a group of students who thought they were failures, gave them a few tools, and led them forward into making a video documentary about how their lives sucked and why they were working so hard to make their lives not suck. We learned about the kids, the city, the poverty, the whole thing. Then we saw the video and we cried with a kind of joy.
  • It’s almost always the speaker for me. Engaging, well prepared, solid message
  • Engagement with the audience – catching the audience’s attention (usually some kind of ‘hook’ but interesting / surprising facts work well!). Not relying on slides (not reading). Knowledgeable about the topic and happy to interact with the audience – asking and answering questions.
  • A good mixture of preparedness and (easy, natural, unforced) connection with the audience
  • I once saw a presentation on writing research findings that could have been dry and boring, but was incredibly engaging. They involved the audience in many small tasks.
  • One of the best ever was a Paul Nation plenary with no slides and seemingly no notes. There was a brief handout on each seat and he balanced theory, information, and a good anecdote or three.
  • Fantastic presentations have a lot of audience participation that is not forced
  • I think it has a lot to do with expertise with the content and being able to present well i.e Scott Thornbury and Ken Wilson = inspirational. David Nunan reading form slides full of text = checking social media
  • One of the speakers were guiding us for pair working and it worked very well.
  • Conviction, even passion, on the part of the speaker, but not dogmatic or hectoring
  • My favorite presentations are the ones that caused me to try something new because they gave me a clear idea of what they new thing was and they convinced me that this new thing would be useful.
  • Yes. The presentation file simply wouldn’t open. Laptop was swiftly turned off and the presenter delivered an engaging talk, without referring to any notes.
  • Involving audience.
  • An amazing command of lecture skills~like an actress
  • Presenter being at ease and enjoying the time with the audience makes it fantastic enough.
  • Russ Mayne’s 2014 IATEFL talk
  • I’ve maybe been lucky but, in the short time I’ve been in ESOL, I can’t remember a presentation that was boring or felt like a waste of time. Some are more pedestrian in their style than others but I’ve never found any tedious. Of course, a touch of humour usually makes a presentation memorable.

Additional thoughts as a conference attendee:

  • Back to back talks, many running at the same time, is unnecessary. Much better to be more selective with number of speakers and build in ample time between the sessions. Most attendees I meet at conferences are, like me, just as interested in sitting down and talking over coffee (or something stronger) as they are in attending talks.
  • Ensuring that although the theme is adhered to, that there is sufficient variety.
  • Scheduled time as some people come from out of town.
  • I don’t like when presenters decide to use PPT and then skip half their slides.
  • Too much dross ant EFL conferences makes it hardly worth anyone’s while going. I really don’t know why people go when you,could read a book which is cheaper with better info. I think conferences are just about networking.
  • Make them affordable. Too many conferences can only be afforded by those with research budgets and good salaries. JALT in Japan is too expensive for everyone. Also, conference organizers in general: get over yourselves. There are lots of conferences in the world. Just because you’re organizing one doesn’t mean you can learn from other people organizing conferences.
  • Free coffee is always good.
  • Conferences are well worth the effort. They refresh your thinking and re-energise you. It’s good to make new contacts and feel part of a professional and supportive community.
  • Think of logistics~minimize buildings, floors, etc. Keep It Simple
  • Having affordable food options or enough healthy food options can make a conference experience much nicer!
  • Plenaries or sessions should not start before 10 am
  • Friendly, welcoming atmosphere created by the organisers and helpers.
  • There should be room for reflection in any conference. Some quiet time where attendees can do anything else other than attending talks or sessions.
  • Long breaks are good for networking
  • Potentially off-topic, but themes can be overrated. When they work well and are organic to the conference they add a lot, but often seem to be just something that has to be there. Especially true of big conferences. Sometimes I really prefer a small tightly knit conference
  • I don’t want to be shilled.
  • I just want to learn and get new ideas.

A Conversation with Michael Free

Over the last few months I have been sharing emails and Facebook messages with Michael Free and at some point we thought a semi-polished interview might be of interest to readers. It is my great pleasure to share our discussion here, starting after the pic. 


One of these Michaels is Michael Free.

Hi Michael thanks for taking the time to talk with me. You are finishing about 10 years in the EPIK program. How do you feel?
Tired. Over the past few weeks, I’ve primarily felt tired. There’s the usual fatigue that comes with the end of the term; the ‘I love my students but I need them to leave me alone for a while’ state teachers are all familiar with. However, there’s also the fact this is the end of my ninth year with EPIK, a long time to stay with one employer and a very long time to stay with EPIK. I almost said ‘one job,’ but I’ve worked in 4 different counties in over 20 schools, so it’s pretty hard to view it that way. Anyway, it’s been a long time, so there’s a deeper sense of fatigue. I also just recently completed my dissertation for my M. TEFL (with the University of Birmingham), so, altogether, I’m nearly completely wiped out. I must say, though, that I’m also feeling very excited. I’ve finished the M. TEFL, got a new job, and my wife just got promoted as well. So, things are looking good, I’d say.

Nice. Sounds great. I am happy to hear things seem to be working out well. What else) have you accomplished in your time in Korea?
I always feel self-conscious answering this type of question, but I’ll give it a shot. I’ve got some additional credentials (a TEYL certificate, lots of online PD, and now an M TEFL), lots of experience (over 20 schools, every public school grade except grade 3 of high school). I’ve also presented at conferences (both small and large), and helped organise PD events for teachers here in Gangwon with KOTESOL. Outside of teaching, I’ve also paid off my student loans, been able to visit other Asian countries, and married the Best Kindergarten Teacher in Korea (Full disclosure: I gave her that award).

Thanks for the response. I know it was sort of an awkward question. Again, it’s nice to hear how things have worked out for you. And you spent all 10 years in Gangwon? How do you think being there this impact your experience?
In very interesting, and mostly positive, ways. When I decided to move to Korea from Montreal, I deliberately chose a rural area. I wanted a complete shift of lifestyle — and I certainly got it! Going from 24/7 cosmopolitanism to life just south of the DMZ in a rural fishing village is pretty extreme.


A shot of the East Sea from the hills in Geojin-eup (pop. 8000).

For some urban dwellers this could be really jarring. I’ve met a few people who were, at least temporarily, overcome. It brings to mind the scene in Apocalypse Now where Captain Willard describes his boat-mate, Mr. Clean: “I think the light and the space of Vietnam really put the zap on his head.”


Lawrence Fishburne, as a zapped Mr. Clean

It was different for me, though, as I wasn’t drafted. I chose it. The light, space, and especially the time gave me a chance to clean house, figuratively and literally, which was what I was after. If I had moved to Seoul, on the other hand, I’m not sure I would have stayed in Korea as long (though you never know). As I settled in, it became clear that working in Gangwon was going to be a big challenge. Given the nature of the Korean educational system and the socio-economic situation here, teaching English, just trying to teach English, can be frustrating, even heartbreaking at times. I’m thinking here of the very rural schools, which is to say the majority of schools I’ve worked in. The students know, I’m quite convinced, they know what they’re up against. It can make for a rough ride, when you care about their development and future beyond today’s word list or (modified-from-its-original-bollox) textbook activity.

It sounds like you embraced the challenge. Why are you leaving?
Opportunity knocked, and I answered. I’ll be moving to Gangneung, where I’ll be a Visiting Professor at Gangneung-Wonju National University. A colleague, whom I now owe a dinner (he says it’s more than one), put me in touch with the people who were looking for his replacement. In typically Korean style, it all happened quickly, and, though there are some details left to work out, the job looks like it will provide me the opportunity to expand my ELT horizons and reconnect with university teaching. It will also give me some more time to focus on seriously learning Korean (dreadfully overdue), and perhaps do some research.

Great news. Gangueng is one of my favorite places in Korea, by the way. What advice would you give to new teachers starting with EPIK now?
Learn some Korean right away, because the effort will most likely endear you to your school. Get out and explore Korea (not just the foreigner hot spots) and make some friends in your community. Know whom to contact if you have questions or are having issues adjusting (sure, your friends from orientation can provide support, but typically they don’t know any more than you do). Try to nip problems in the bud. Also, get involved in some professional development. To be blunt:  If you arrive here with a 100-hour TESOL certificate, a Bachelor of Not-Education, and no teaching experience, you need professional development.  I’m not saying you should sign up for an advanced degree program immediately, but buy a book, attend a webinar or attend a KOTESOL meeting (Full disclosure, again: I’m currently the president of the Gangwon Chapter). Most of all, bear in mind that, whether you like it or not, you’re an ambassador for your country and your profession. I feel a bit like a Dutch uncle saying that, but it’s true (and it doesn’t matter that it’s not fair that you didn’t sign up to be an ambassador).

Oh, I almost forgot I was talking to the President of my KOTESOL chapter. And speaking of EPIK, you wrote a guest post on this a blog before about native teachers in Korean public schools …do you agree with what you wrote then? What changed since?
I do, indeed. In fact, what happened just after that post reinforced my central point about the lack of time to plan being the biggest issue for many of us. One week before the start of term — one week! — I was assigned a schedule that involved 5 schools (none of which I had worked at before), 9 grades, over a dozen different textbooks and even more co-teachers (the actual number was considerably less). The first two months in that schedule were hectic, to say the least. I had to try to get organised very quickly, and I didn’t know enough about the schools I was going into to be able to prepare as thoroughly as I would have liked. So, no, nothing has changed, at least for me.

What advice would you give those running EPIK? Why?
There are some specific suggestions that I can’t get into, even though your readers might find them interesting. I hope that’s not too much of a tease, but I’m bound by agreement to not discuss matters that contain confidential information. The advice I feel I can give is to urge, pressure, and exhort the key decision makers to listen. Not just to the ideas I’ve tried (and, apparently, often failed) to communicate to them during my time as a teacher and district coordinator, but to other teachers. The people they should listen to include not only senior EPIK teachers (a dwindling number), but some of the more experienced Korean English teachers. I had the opportunity to talk with quite a few Korean teachers during the course of my dissertation research. They are knowledgeable, passionate educators who know what needs to be done to improve not only EPIK, but English teaching in Korea in general. “Dear admin, please listen” is a typical refrain of teachers, I know, but I can’t help but join in the chorus. As to why, I have to return to planning, though on a larger scale. There needs to be a plan for EPIK, which should, ideally, be connected to a long-term vision. This should be rigorously related to the National Curriculum, and thoughtfully tailored to students’ needs.

You mentioned the dwindling number of senior EPIK teachers. I wonder what you think about this trend of reducing the number of EPIK teachers. Any thoughts on this?
I do have some, but, for the same reason I gave above, I have to refrain from getting into specifics. When I first arrived, the mantra was, for better or worse, “1 NEST in every school.” Now, due to economics and, to an extent, politics, this is impossible even in theory; there are just too many schools and too few bodies. I’m of the opinion that it is possible to have positive outcomes with fewer, but well-trained teachers. To use Apocalypse Now once again, Col. Kurtz, in one of his more lucid moments, said: “If I had [only] ten divisions of those men, our troubles here would be over very quickly.”


Col. Kurtz, with his copy of “Big Questions in ELT.”

If EPIK had a smaller number of qualified ELTs (not just men, obviously, and, perhaps less obviously to some, not merely ‘qualified’ by their citizenship), wow, what a difference they could make! But, again, for this to happen you need a plan, an organized system, in which these teachers can be allowed to perform. Just parachuting individual teachers into schools and letting things work on an ad hoc basis has, at best, provided mixed results. There have been small-scale improvements in the program, I should say, but there needs to be a reconsideration of some fundamentals in order for EPIK to really accomplish something significant. Maybe there will be a plan or a system in the future. It would certainly be welcome!

I suppose we should stop here. Thanks again for taking the time, Michael. Talk to you soon!
You’re quite welcome! Anytime!
I will just relax here and listen to “The End of the World” (as we know it) by REM because things are a-changin’.

Note: The photo of the Michaels was taken by Barb Sakamoto at the 2014 KOTESOL International Conference and is from her excellent set of the event on Flickr. The other photos were found on the internets (or taken) by Michael Free and were captioned by him.