'Sirhajwan Idek and the wonder of IATEFL: Celebrities, concerts & comrades' by Sirhajwan Idek

2nd June 2019

I remember telling someone that I wanted to attend and present at IATEFL two years ago when I first visited the UK. I was attending a two-week summer course in Norwich Institute of Language Education (NILE) as a prize for winning Macmillan’s ‘Teachers at the heart‘ competition with this entry. The United Kingdom has been always a popular dream destination for Malaysians but I never had the chance of studying there during my university years since I was not offered with any scholarship and the UK is such an expensive place to visit. Nevertheless, I didn’t give up pursuing my dream of going to the UK, especially when I eventually became an English language teacher and enjoyed the profession. When I learnt about the IATEFL scholarships, I knew that these scholarships were my opportunity to make it to the IATEFL conference. I applied for the first time in 2016 but I didn’t make the cut. I attempted it for the second time the following year with a clearer and more focused written essay and I won!!! I won the Express Publishing Scholarship and I was so excited to find out that I was the first winner for this scholarship since it was their first time sponsoring a scholarship.

I know it might sound like a cliché for me to say that the IATEFL conference was the best conference I ever attended but it is the truth. I have attended many conferences in Malaysia and in other countries, but I have never been to a conference with such a lot of amazing sessions that it was so hard for me to make up my mind which one I should attend. I was impressed with the number of delegates, exhibitors and speakers who were at this conference and the level of energy and enthusiasm that everyone had was superb. I was so thrilled too as many world-renowned scholars and educators in language education were present at this conference and I was able to meet some of them, like Scott Thornbury, Jeremy Harmer and David Nunan. To me, they are “Celebrities” in the ELT world and I can now brag to others that I have met these celebrities in person. In fact, Scott Thornbury was appointed as my mentor for my presentation. I found it so hard to believe! I studied his work during my bachelor’s degree and master’s study, I cited his papers for my research, I applied his theories in my teaching approach, I always admire his work and I want to be like him! He is incredibly fantastic. So imagine how happy I was when he was assigned to mentor me! It was like triple blessings: winning the Express Publishing IATEFL Scholarship, being able to present my work there and having Scott Thornbury as my mentor. Not to mention the conference, the city and the people were so amazing! I felt like asking myself: what did I do to deserve all of this?

Since I had to present my winning project at the conference, I had all these questions on my mind: Would I have any audience? Would people be interested in listening to my topic? Would they like my talk? Would they give me feedback? And most importantly, how would they react when I told them about what inspired the name of my project, Wonder Zone (Alice in Wonderland and Britney’s In the Zone album). I was so relieved and excited to discover that the audiences were very supportive, positive and enthusiastic. They gave great feedback too! Scott Thornbury, Natassa Manitsa from Express Publishing and Maureen McGarvey, the coordinator for the IATEFL Scholarship Committee attended my slot. They told me I did great and it was such an honor for me to receive such acknowledgment and feedback from them and the audience. It was a humbling experience too.

I presented my winning project known as Wonder Zone. It is an educational outreach programme where we initially select a particular primary school and my students, in pairs, choose a specific issue such as health, hygiene, literacy, sports and environment that they would like to focus on. They develop their projects for the pupils at the selected school according to the chosen theme. They independently design and experiment with their ideas before they carry out these projects when we visit the school and interact directly with the pupils. This approach is consistent with project-based learning as the process of planning and developing the project provides the students opportunities to develop their English language skills, creativity, communication and collaboration skills. I narrowed the language focus into four types of sentences that they can practice through this programme: declarative sentences (statement), imperative sentence (command), interrogative sentences (question) and explanatory sentences that my students can use to interact with the children during the educational outreach. For example, they need to describe the task to the children using declarative sentences (this is a red ball, there are three animals in the farm), they ask the children questions using interrogative sentences (what do we call this? What was the name of the boy in the story?), they give the children instructions using imperative sentences (draw the house, cut the boxes) and they use exclamatory sentences to encourage the children (That is wonderful! Keep up the good work!). The students can practise these simple sentences to improve their fluency and to interact effectively with the children. Since I am teaching in a vocational school, this approach caters to the students’ needs to learn English for Specific Purpose (ESP). It enables them to practice the language in a meaningful and authentic manner that helps them become aware of the significance, relevance and practicality of the language.

I attended many slots during the conference and I became very interested in the concept of gamification since I believe it is an emerging approach in language education. I learnt that gamification is different from game-based learning and I also discovered that gamification was not as hard as I thought it would be to implement in classroom learning. I gained many tips and strategies on how to incorporate gamification into English lessons. Since I love writing stories and poems, I attended some of the talks on using stories in teaching and I am glad that story-based learning continues to be relevant and useful. I definitely need to find ways on how to deliver such approach effectively in my class. To sum it up, my IATEFL Brighton experience further confirmed my opinion that I made the right choice to become an English language educator.

Sirhajwan Idek is an English language teacher at Keningau Vocational College, Sabah, Malaysia. He was born and grew up in Sabah, the most isolated state of Malaysia, located on the island of Borneo. He graduated with Bachelor’s Degree and Master’s Degree from UiTM [Universiti Teknologi MARA System] in 2011 and 2015 respectively. He loves coaching his students for English competitions like public speaking, debate and poetry. He also helps his students take part in innovation and entrepreneurship competitions. Since he is teaching in a rural area, he finds it important to expose his students to the outside world through these extracurricular activities. As an English language educator, he attempts to integrate English language into these activities and make his students more aware of how important the language is and how easy it is for them to learn and use it fluently.