Professional Development: Why Attending Conferences Counts

Mira Malupa-Kim, Member California TESOL (CATESOL), Alliant International University-San Diego

The CATESOL statewide annual conference in Santa Clara just ended, and I am already saving up for CATESOL Long Beach next year. Since the concept of attending conferences was introduced to me, I have attended at least one conference a year. To me, it is like any other occasion that comes annually, like birthdays and anniversaries. I look forward to it because it is also one way I can travel!

As a teacher trainer, promoting professional development to my teacher-trainees at the master's level (TESOL) can be difficult. The questions that my MA TESOL candidates normally ask are as follows:

  • What good will attending conferences do to my career as a TESOL professional?
  • Which professional organization do I join?
  • Can they (CATESOL or other organizations) help me find a job?

Of course, other questions come up every semester. Although the answers seem quite obvious, I thought that I was not responding well enough to convince my students to attend conferences and become members of a professional organization (like CATESOL). So I thought about coming up with better answers to these questions than the usual response they have from others: "It'll look good on your resume." I thought of answering the questions above based on my personal experiences. With 8 years' experience in teaching English in both EFL and ESL settings, it was only when I decided to pursue a master's degree in TESOL that I realized the importance of affiliations with a professional organization and proactive work such as attending and presenting at conferences. The question of how far they would be willing to invest in this career was capital, as it sure does cause a dent in one's finances if the school does not have funding, as is quite common.

Overall, we concentrate too much on the concrete material outcomes, that is, books bought, free stuff obtained, handouts to share at the workplace, attendance verification, and so forth. We forget about far more significant outcomes that do not translate monetarily: the feeling of belonging to a group that shares your passion, the knowledge we get from presentations, and interacting with our peers and experts in the field. What good it will do depends on how you view the experience. Sometimes we go to a presentation, and it was not what we thought it was going to be. It is hit-or-miss, really. However, if you look at it from a different angle, you still may be able to extract something from the experience. It opens minds and it opens doors. When I was an MA student, attending conferences gave me more confidence and assurance because I learned that I was doing the right thing in my classes and also that I could "step things up" a little bit¯by trying other methods, incorporating technology, and doing more investigating through further research. These do not seem to amount to a lot of things, but they do have an effect on your teaching philosophy and practices, without your being aware of it: how open-minded you are to changes, how much of a team player you are, how much you want to improve and offer your students a variety of activities, and so on. If you are seeking employment, how you answer these questions reflects the way you view the profession. The exposure alone helps tremendously, but you need to also make the whole experience work for you. Have I ever found employment through the job fairs at the CATESOL conference? My answer to that question would be "Yes." I remember getting one of my most important jobs of my TESOL career through a CATESOL job fair. Whether you are able to find the job you want or not at the job fair, it certainly gives you a sense of what the job market looks like.

Once you get your "conference mode" turned on, you want to attend as much as you can if time and money permit. The next thing you want to do is to present. Get in the game! It took me a while before I finally got the courage to present. I first presented alone, and this year I presented twice on some of the collaborative work I had done with colleagues from out of state ("Personalizing Online Classroom Environment Through Voicethread" with Ms. Natalie Dielman from the University of Toledo and "Accent-Fluency Correlation: What Teachers Need to Know" with Mr. Joemer Ta-ala from the University of Florida). Again, this was a learning experience for me because I sought the opportunity not to work alone; I prefer working alone, but I thought I would challenge myself this year. I also wanted to be a model to my teacher-trainees by doing so, as pair or group work has always been an issue.

As far as which professional organization to join, I always tell my students that it depends on what your professional goals are and where you want to work. The important thing is to keep learning, to know what's hot and what's not! One really easy way to do this is to attend conferences and become a member of a professional organization. Try it and see how it works for you, so start saving, and I hope to see you all in person at the CATESOL Annual Conference 2011 in Long Beach.

Mira Malupa-Kim, who has a master's in TESOL, is adjunct faculty in the TESOL Department, Hufstedler School of Education, at Alliant International University in San Diego.