'My Brighton experience – reflections on a scholarship' by Julia Alivertis

30th June 2019

What encouraged me to attend the IATEFL Conference this year was a combination of things: last years’ experience in Glasgow, an idea for a joint presentation that became a labour of love, dedication to our profession and the instinct for seeking continuous professional development. What literally brought me to it was the Macmillan scholarship for first-time IATEFL presenters, which I won. It came as an unexpected gift in a lot more ways than the generous financial aspect. I felt lucky and deeply honoured to have been chosen among a large group of candidates, but I couldn’t have expected all the help and support I got from the IATEFL Scholarship committee and the Macmillan crew. Not only did they make sure that I would not encounter any problems during my preparation for the Conference, but they did their best to make the Brighton IATEFL Conference a valuable personal experience, taking good care of me and giving me a lot more attention than I could have hoped for.

The idea to send a proposal was born when my co-presenters and I started a discussion on how interesting and fruitful it might be to combine learning technologies with a plan to build empathy in the ELT classroom, to re-examine how we can teach our students to care for each other in a rather impersonal, data-driven world and, finally, to share it with colleagues from different contexts and see if it would also appeal to and work for them. In our view, empathy can prove a useful tool when efficiently activated and developed as a fifth skill, through cognitive and metacognitive processes.

It seemed that the IATEFL Conference would be the ideal opportunity to do this, as it is attended by colleagues from all over the world, teachers trying their best to teach English in situations very different from our own. Moreover, we hoped that the Learning Technologies and Global Issues Special Interest Groups would provide us with more insight into developing the concept of ‘Techno-Ethics’, a set of principles that we want to share with and instil in our students. With these in mind, a workshop titled ‘Do Androids dream of electric sheep? – Digital Empathy in ELT’ was created by three friends, Vicky Chionopoulou, Eftychis Kantarakis and myself, all members of TESOL Greece and sharing the same values and educational philosophy. I believe it was the excitement of the venture and the faith in its possibilities for classroom use within the ELT community that actually gave me the strength to apply for the scholarship, though at that moment it seemed like a very long shot.

During the presentation, with the help of our audience, we tried out a lot of e-learning activities in an attempt to redefine the ‘e’ to mean emotion, empathy and ethics. One example was ‘Empathy Bingo’, a fun activity that helped our audience recognize empathy demonstrated through short dialogues. Instead of the winning numbers of the classic Bingo game, the audience was trying to predict the order of a number of responses that could be mistaken for empathy and identify them for what they truly are.

The feedback we got after the presentation was more than encouraging and we all seemed to agree that by explicitly teaching students to be more conscious of other people’s feelings, we can create a more accepting and respectful school community. We hope that in the long run ‘digital empathy’ will inspire students to stand up for something, not just stand by, and communicate more effectively by embracing differences, building relationships, gaining a global perspective.

The conference was huge, but somehow managed to remain intimate and friendly as we kept bumping into people we know from other events and through networking. It engaged our cognition and emotion through a wide variety of topics, while the exhibition captured all our senses with the vivid colours of the stands, the abundance of materials, the buzz of the people, the pop-up events, the scent of coffee…but what was really great about the conference was meeting, spending time with and learning from other colleagues. I attended a lot of interesting sessions, some by famous speakers, and others by less well-known promising young teachers, or passionate experienced practitioners. They all gave me food for thought and a broader perspective to reflect on.

One of the highlights for me was Brita Fernandez Schmidt’s plenary during which she introduced Women for Women International, providing insight into how education plays a key role in making Global Goals, as agreed by the UN in 2015, a reality. In total accordance with our workshop, she linked the ELT world represented by the IATEFL conference with the real world, reminding us all that, besides teachers, we are global citizens and our classrooms are communities that can take action to make the real world a better place.

Attending the IATEFL Conference as a scholarship winner has offered me a lot more than ‘means, motive and opportunity’ to experience a major ELT Event. The main thing I have taken home with me is hope for the future of ELT and its role as an agent of change for the better. Meeting so many dedicated teachers of all ages was empowering. My presentation, focusing on the need to develop Empathy in the ELT classroom and the digital world our learners interact with, was a small contribution to the broad range of sessions dealing with World Issues and Learning Technologies. Next stop: Liverpool!

Julia has been a teacher of English for more than 25 years and a part-time trainer for state school teachers, as well as a volunteer teacher for underprivileged students. A firm believer in life-long learning and CPD, Julia is currently pursuing an M.A. in TESOL focusing on Intercultural Issues in ELT and is an active member of TESOL Greece. She has co-organized the three TG International events in Preveza, Greece, where she lives, and has taken part in many international ELT conferences as a speaker.

IATEFL 2019 Scholarships

If you’re inspired by Julia’s story, why not apply for a scholarship for IATEFL Liverpool 2019 yourself? Applications for our 2019 scholarships will open on Friday 1st June 2018. The closing date for applications is 16.00 (UK Time) Thursday 12th July 2018. Any applications received after this time will not be accepted.