23 comments on “Conferences, VIPs and equality – a corrective?

  1. Hi Jeremy. I’ve been following this across blogs, marvelling at the opportunistic nature of some of the comment, and at the wisdom of much of it. At some point, I was reminded of these lines by Louis MacNeice (from Autumn Journal) which I will post here by way of comment.

    None of our hearts are pure, we always have mixed motives,
    Are self-deceivers, but the worst of all
    Deceits is to murmur `Lord, I am not worthy’
    And, lying easy, turn your face to the wall.
    But may I cure that habit, look up and outwards
    And may my feet follow my wider glance
    First no doubt to stumble, then to walk with the others
    And in the end—with time and luck–to dance.

    • Hi Luke,

      sorry I didn’t reply before. The lack of broadband, and then the thing that happened yesterday (that birthday thing) sort of distracted me. Plus flying here to Cairo.

      I love that poem. Will keep it with the sunlight in the garden!


  2. A timely and well argued posting, Jeremy – to which I can’t add anything original – but simply salute your eloquent characterisation of the way the blogosphere both exacerbates professional tensions and rivalries, and also serves to defuse them. As I wrote to a (Shakespearian) colleague today: “The web is full of noises…” Sometimes I yearn for the silence of which Hamlet spoke!

    • Hi Scott,

      see my reply to Luke about why I didn’t reply before!

      But of course Hamlet’s silence was terminal, and we don’t want that quite yet, do we?


  3. Hi Jeremy.

    As usual, another finely thought-out and balanced response to an issue, and quite soothing after so many gun fights across blogs of late!

    I think the issue of inequality is one that has always bothered me the most when it comes to conferences. Teachers on extremely crappy wages traveling far and paying a lot of money to attend conferences, to watch people making considerably more money than them attend at almost zero cost (and potentially even some financial profit to themselves). It is one of the ironies of ELT conferences in particular that once you actually get to the stage where the cost and time of a conference aren’t likely to sting (as much), you then get to be there pretty much for free – admittedly usually on a publisher’s or some other company’s ticket. I felt this irony rather poignantly after becoming a coursebook writer.

    There is also, then, the issue of most VIP presenters being supported by – and therefore representing at least to some extent – the major publishers, which must sometimes raise questions about impartiality or vested interests, and despite all and any good intentions, does risk the appearance of sugar-coated trade shows.

    These and other factors make a lot of VIPs (too) easy targets when it comes to criticism of conferences, and claims of elitism in particular. To be fair, most teachers out there are pretty balanced people, and don’t hold this against VIPs (and I’m sure many in fact feel the VIPs have earned such privileges). And of course, I’m not sure the solution to the problem is to start asking VIPs to pay their own way – we all know where that is likely to end up.

    But if we stick to these issues of access and cost, I have to say that IATEFL and BC made some absolutely mammoth strides forward this year. IATEFL Online was absolutely brilliant, and from one of Gavin’s posts somewhere, apparently reached more than 50,000 teachers worldwide – free of charge (and archived selections from it continue to be accessed by thousands more after the event). It’s a bit of a shame that so much of the current talk about the place focuses on negatives and misses this incredible achievement.

    IATEFL Online was technology and Internet shining at its very best for educational purposes. It was also a powerful demonstration of how a teaching organisation can make dramatic inroads into leveling the playing field and achieve more of its essential mission statements.

    Still, is there a risk now that live in-the-flesh attendance at the event will increasingly become the privilege of the rich and/or powerful (or fortunately local) forces in ELT, while lots of poor teachers get to watch them party from afar? Better than nothing perhaps, or the next phase of challenges to think about and tackle?

    One thought I had was for IATEFL associates in various countries/regions to have their own mini-conferences at the same time, with both IATEFL in the UK and these various countries beaming presentations live across to each other. Sounds like a logistical and technological nightmare now, but I daresay IATEFL Online 2010 would have been viewed with something approaching the same scepticism even 10 years ago… Perhaps.

    I do see some issues and problems with all of these matters. But most of all, when it comes to creating more equality in terms of access and participation, I see mostly a great big barrel of exciting potential.

    • Thanks for this considered comment, Jason, and sorry I didn’t get to it sooner (cos of broadband problems, travelling, and getting distracted by the birthday ambush)

      I agree with you about the potential. I think you’ve got things about right – and I LOVE the idea of a kind of multi-conference link-up. Wow. That WOULD be something!


  4. Dear Jeremy,

    as an English teacher from Slovakia, living and working in the Czech Republic, I consider myself a part of the “common” teaching crowd (and I don’t use this term in a negative way – it’s just the way it is and, to be honest, I feel happy where I am, so do not send me any VIP plenary speaker invites jest yet, please! ;)).
    Of course, there are hierarchies and structures.
    I feel that most critical voices stem from the fact that language teaching is considered to be one of those noble, “selfless”, egalitarian occupations and, naturally, any mention of “profit” is bound to be sneered at, even if it’s deserved.
    Also, unfortunately, teaching (language teaching included) is very much undervalued in too many political systems around the world. Organisers within such political systems have a difficult task balancing quality of content, number of participants and satisfaction of all parties involved.
    While there surely are brilliant minds all over the world that aren’t given due respect or reward, the brilliant minds that are invited to conferences and are respected in the world of ELT (whether thanks to intelligence, personal charm, a bit of ‘egotism’) have something to give. Neither they, nor the organisers can be blamed for “unequal” treatment, even if “profit” is involved (and where isn’t?).
    We do live in an unequal world, after all. Hopefully, thanks to language teaching also, the possibilities are becoming equally open to everyone.

    At the same time, however, I am a little concerned about a different kind of inequality, still existing in every-day teaching situations in many countries. I’ve got personal experience from a prestigious state-owned bilingual grammar school in Slovakia, where I used to teach English with some of my native-speaking colleagues. Here, the pressures from parents to have more native-speaking teachers were so high that the school management had to offer many more advantages, both in terms of pay and other perks, to native speaking teachers. The parents saw this as absolutely acceptable and were willing to provide separate funds to provide more finances for native speaking teachers. It goes without saying that, while the local teachers were automatically expected not only to do their teaching job well, but do the majority of paperwork, organise parent-meetings, as well as be held responsible for the success of the students at exams. Even so, they were paid much less.

    What we need, I feel, is change the existing discriminatory attitudes that put “native” teachers above their non-native speaking ELT colleagues.

    Best wishes,


    • Hi Marian,

      you are 100% right, in my opinion, to get angry – or frustrated at least – by that ‘native-speaker-is-more-worthy’ attitude. It feels, now, like an attitude from the dim and distant past. except that some parents, some students and, great heavens, some governments still adhere to it.

      Just as there is no reason to pay women less for doing the same job as men, so it is completely unacceptable, in my view, to pay non-native speakers less than native speakers. Especially when it is getting increasingly difficult to say, anyway, who a native speaker is.

      The only criteria (if the teacher’s English is good enough) is whether or not the teacher is any good at his or her job.

      But how do you/we/they change those parents’ attitudes? That’s what I want to know.


      • I really appreciate knowing that you share this view, Jeremy.
        As to how to change it, that’s a tough one, as I’m in two minds about this myself.
        Firstly, the NSTs who taught in Slovakia when I was a teenager were a great source for me to “absorb” language and attitudes that I could employ in my ELT life. Had they not been sufficiently motivated to stay in Slovakia I wouldn’t have got this exposure and wouldn’t be where I am now.
        On the other hand, it’s a difficult fact to live with that my experience, language and teaching skills, no matter how I strive to develop them, would hardly be considered equally valuable not only abroad, but in my own country.
        Of course, this could serve as fantastic and most effective motivation to try and break through this old-fashioned barrier. That’s how I try to see it, anyway.
        What I think we need is to show that ELT has moved on. English teachers aren’t providing the sole, “perfect” specimen of a language to be learnt from anymore, but helping others on the way to absorb as many different accents, modes, functions, etc. as possible, from as many different available sources as possible.
        With this in mind, we can show that it doesn’t matter where we come from, not even where we are, anymore. The amazing thing is that thanks to Web 2.0 tools we have the potential to start this liberating process ourselves and change these pre-historic attitudes. Teachers anywhere in the world can become perfect facilitators of language learning, no matter where they’re from. I think the attitudes of learners, parents, institutions will follow suite.


  5. On the occasions that I go to conferences, and like many busy teachers that’s not very often, I notice that these ‘VIPs’ are usually people who are well-known because of books they have published. So, not surprisingly, they seem to be promoting their latest book, and are sponsored by big publishers.

    • Yes, Matt, that’s true enough, I guess. Does it matter that they are promoting a book? Are the best speakers ones who make sure their talks have academic merit as the priority and the book as a secondary issue?


  6. Pingback: “Inequality in ELT” – my thoughts on Jeremy Harmer’s blog post « ELTideas – love, life & language learning

  7. Sorry am going to totally bypass on the direct questions about inequalities and go straight to the social-media quandary.

    Why do we expect the online community to be any different from the normal world… or better, why do we expect it to be any different from back when we were living in trees jumping from branch to branch?

    There will be good days, there will be bad days, there will be leaders and fighters and cheerleaders and pranksters. There will be fights and parties and there will be life and we will love it all because that’s what we know and that’s what we are.

    🙂 chin up Jeremy, it’s not so serious – so we didn’t find utopia 🙂 oh well.

    • Thanks for the ‘bypass’ Karenne, and yes, good days (very good, as you know) and bad days. That’s perhaps the glory of the blogosphere. Anyone can do or say anything!

      I like MERRY pranksters!


  8. Hi Jeremy – this is my first post on your blog although I’ve been reading it for a while now.

    Speaking from a conference organisers point of view (albeit a rather inexperienced one – this year will be my first)

    As the TD Chair for ETAS my baby is our annual SIG Day. Our events Chair looks after the AGM. I don’t know about other organisations but speaking for ETAS I can say the amount of work we put into organising these events is just enormous. Planning for an event (finding the venue, getting a Local Organising Committee together, sending out calls for papers, arranging sponsors, food, drink, flowers, raffles, entertainment,) all starts up to 12 months before the actual event. I can say that this work then goes on in one way or another for up to several hours a week for all the various stages leading up to the event itself.

    The people I’ve seen at work are all people who feel really passionately about supporting the teachers in our country. Native and non-native teachers alike. Of course there are egos and problems – in which area of life are there not? But from what I have experienced there is a huge level of gratitude between members for even taking the time out to do this. Most of us have very full lives with families, children, jobs etc.

    Speaking personally I do this because I love meeting like-minded people and want to give back in some small way. Also because I know how really difficult it can be as an English teacher in Switzerland. I’ve worked at schools in the UK and Australia, with bustling staff rooms and normal working hours!! Where you can lean over and ask the senior teacher for advice on something.

    Out here many many teachers work unsociable hours, for an hourly rate and often as much of the work is in-company, in great isolation. The staff room culture and a sense of community is quite rare. So both the national conferences and the full programme of regional workshops we have at ETAS are really valuable both in terms of professional development but also for networking, making friends and just not feeling so isolated!!

    As for the national conferences, yes we like to see a big name but more importantly we like an interesting and thought provoking plenary. From what I’ve seen so far the big names seem to be pretty well looked after over here!! And personally I think it’s fair enough that they are sponsored to come out. Also of course we need the publishers – and in the same breath it’s nice to think that we also offer the publishers something too (plenty of visitors to their stands, we hope!) So much interdependence at work!

    From my rather limited experience a good conference is not just about the plenary speaker. Yes, there are some who always will pull people in. But I think just as important is to have a real variety of quality workshops given by passionate teachers from the country and other countries too.

    Here in Switzerland we have very popular local teachers and trainers who have a reputation for giving top notch workshops where teachers leave with fresh ideas they can use in class the next week. We also welcome new presenters too.

    From what I’ve seen ETAS seem to be very very open to suggestions and each AGM the floor is completely opened to questions and suggestions which I can tell you are then taken very seriously. This association is run by a group of normal teachers and at conferences the good will of many many helpers who just, well, like to help!

    Another thing I like (stops any potential empire builders as well as total burn out!) is as committee members we hold our role for 3 years and then it’s passed on (IF we can find someone willing to take on the work – sometimes not easy!)

    • Hi Steph,

      thank you for this exemplary and interesting post. Yes, the motives of people like you seem completely blameless to me. And of course I mean more than that. I mean that people who put in the kind of work that you and your colleagues do should be celebrated from the rooftops. No one in their right mind could have anything but gratitude.

      You are quite right too about plenaries vs other kinds of event. Everything depends on the mix, the variety, what’s on offer by everyone.

      Speaking personally, the ETAS events I have attended have been well organised, packed with good talks and thoroughly enjoyable.

      Thanks for your comments.


  9. Ok, so I picked a bad day when I chose to blog on the same subject on the same day as Jeremy Harmer. (Proof, if need be, that no-one should expect the world to be fair). I won’t repeat what I wrote there, but I’m slightly perplexed about Jason’s comment:

    “Teachers on extremely crappy wages traveling far and paying a lot of money to attend conferences, to watch people making considerably more money than them attend at almost zero cost (and potentially even some financial profit to themselves).”

    I would have thought this is quite natural. Anyone interested in personal development is likely to search out people more successful than themselves in the expectation of learning something which could help them improve their performance. It’s wouldn’t be very smart to look at less successful people and try to learn from them.

    Personally, I’ve never had a problem paying for good ideas, and yes I know that good ideas aren’t reserved for the highly-paid experts, but in most cases I’m more than prepared to believe that the big names in ELT didn’t get to the top on their looks (NO OFFENCE, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!)

  10. Hi Olaf,

    Did the follow up comment I made make things any less perplexing?

    “These and other factors make a lot of VIPs (too) easy targets when it comes to criticism of conferences, and claims of elitism in particular. To be fair, most teachers out there are pretty balanced people, and don’t hold this against VIPs (and I’m sure many in fact feel the VIPs have earned such privileges). And of course, I’m not sure the solution to the problem is to start asking VIPs to pay their own way”


  11. Right then, might as well go ahead and tackle this one head on…

    Jeremy, in your post you mention “[voices which suggest that conferences are] run by conference organisers who are working to their own agendas and advancement rather than for the good of the teaching body as a whole” and later pose as one of your central questions:

    “Are conference organisers just ‘in it for themselves’?”

    Well, my answer to that question is no, of course not.

    If that point has been raised by you in response to a certain Marxist ELF’s rather over-the-top accusations, then fair enough.

    I get the feeling, however, that this point may be in reference to an exchange I had with another prominent ELTer over on Nick’s blog. Is it?

    If so, I want to point out that I’ve been (directly or indirectly) misrepresented here.

    I did point out on that blog (and continue to maintain this point of view) that many people associated with volunteer work in ELT organisations do in fact get some personal and financial benefits, mainly as a result of exposure and participation in an extended network that does very much feature crossovers between non-profit “for the broader good of teaching” and decidedly for-profit business interests. I also commented that I don’t see this as something evil, but I do think *some* volunteers with organisations who *may* be getting rewards for their business need to tread a little cautiously before appearing to claim rather piously that it’s all give and absolutely no take. I claimed, and continue to maintain, that such posturing is somewhat disingenuous.

    Now in that particular exchange, the party I was talking to did – in his unflinching way – make it very clear that he thought I was assuming too much in apparently positing this question to his particular situation. That was accepted, and the other party also accepted that his assumption I had no experience or knowledge of what it is like to work in an active role with a volunteer ELT organisation was also wide of the mark.

    But to get back to your core question, the idea that “conference organisers are purely in it for themselves” was not stated or even insinuated in such brazen terms (by me, at least). Caveats were raised, is all.

    And I truly am sorry if this offends anyone, but the fact remains that we all as humans operate and act with an “expectation of reward” of some sort or another. Many – and I dare say the vast majority – of the people associated with volunteer ELT organisations do what they do because – in short – it is “highly rewarding,” and that can mean a whole range of things to whole range of different people.

    But to assert that working with a voluntary ELT organisation never attracts potential employment, writing or other professional or financial opportunities is just wrong. To throw eggs at the straight up person who mentions this is also wrong, and not really fooling anybody.

    Rightio – that’s that off the chest then! If I was indeed one of the voices you felt needed a corrective response to, then I hope this effectively comprises a corrective to your corrective.

    All the best,

    ~ Jason

  12. Hi Jason,

    I wasn’t really thinking of you at all, by the way, though I did of course read all of that exchange.

    For the record, I want to say again that most conference volunteers do a fantastic job and we are all the richer for it. But I entirely accept that no one does it for purely saintly reasons. Yes, people want to serve, to ‘give something back’ as Steph says above. But they get something they need out of it too. Maybe it’s just a ‘feeling-good-about-themselves’ buzz; maybe it’s the satisfaction of a job well done; maybe it’s the good opinions of their peers that they crave. Well, after all, have a great mix of motives.

    My only corrective (and it wasn’t so much aimed at you) was to remind people that for every ego-out-of-control organiser, there are armies of more selfless & dedicated people, even though their motives may be mildly compromised to a smaller or greater degree.


    • Thanks Jeremy – well that IS a relief (and an indication I misread your inadvertent ‘public DM’ on Twitter!)

      For what it’s worth, when people ask me why I got involved with teaching organisations, or why they should join and start getting involved, this is a fairly good snapshot of what I say to them:

      1) You connect and make friends, lots of them, and you get a much better feeling about the job you do
      2) You avoid the feelings of closed walls (your local school, for example) and inertia (not really doing anything about issues that bother you in your profession)
      3) You access ideas and tools to help you perform better as a teacher (though one of the blights of being an organiser is that you can’t always watch or participate, you’re too busy running around as – someone put it – a blue-bottomed fly)
      4) You learn a lot of coordination and organisation skills which can help you in this but also other professions
      5) You elevate your professional profile and increase the chances of being noticed (for opportunities like better jobs or publishing or consultancy work)
      6) You learn cooperative and collaborative skills (which are paramount in non-profit and volunteer organisations) that aren’t always available in the rather more hierarchial settings of certain schools and businesses

      I think I would rather it all at that, and forge on (though thank you for the clarification, Jeremy, which also warrants an apology on my behalf for such a thorough explanation and defense in the preceding comment).


  13. Hi Jeremy,

    It’s an interesting subject, that of motivation. It seems that like pretty much everything else in life motivation is a very fluid, changeable quality. The motivation people have on joining an organization could well change and ping pong back and forth over time.(even within short periods of time too!)

    Also depends when the question “why do you do this?” is asked (after a great conference – or a really frustrating day) and who asks the question!

    It’s undeniable that there are rewards that come from working on a national committee. Networking, being sent to IATEFL, having costs covered for national events. All of these tangible rewards could appeal to more intangible and fluid inner-needs we all have some of which are noble and some are less so.

    When I was talked into taking this role, on a lovely summer’s morning last year I had little idea of what it was about, I felt at first flattered that people considered I could do it and then had moment of fear thinking, “they couldn’t find anyone else who’d take it so they asked me!” Finally I just thought – if you don’t give it a go you’ll never know!

    So it’s probably hard to be black and white about motives. My “saintly” post was written for your blog – but of course I also have less than perfect motives that pop up too.

    I suppose the thing I try to do is be aware of the range of motives and almost just laugh when they pop up. “Oh there you are again, my hope to be praised and noticed” motive!! and so on.

    We all have off days (all human!) and sometimes even say things in private that we’d be mortified if the whole world could hear!! (Which is why although I didn’t at all condone what Gordon Brown said – I tried not to judge him for it!)

    The main thing – and it’s usually evident, is if someone has an over-riding negative motivation for taking a role.

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