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by Kelsey Daniels
This past March, I had the privilege of being awarded the James Nattinger Travel Grant to attend the TESOL International Convention in Atlanta, Georgia (thank you, thank you, ORTESOL!). Given that this was my first ever convention, I was absolutely filled to the brim with the vim and vigor of a very eager beaver—and I was determined to use this opportunity to learn everything I could, meet everyone I could, and fill every moment I could to the maximum. So, strapping on my shoes and slinging my laptop bag over my shoulder, I marched out the door of my Airbnb before 7 a.m. (that’s 4 a.m. on the west coast!) on the first morning of the conference armed and ready to take it all in.
And…by about 3:34 p.m. that afternoon, all my gusto and gumption had all but petered out as I sat in the lobby of the Georgia World Congress Center like a deer caught in the headlights, scrolling through the TESOL app unsure about which of the 21 talks to go to at 4 p.m., which of the 6000 attendees I should introduce myself to next, and which compartment of my brain I could possibly squeeze more new information into.
Obviously, I write in jest, but—in all sincerity—an international conference of this size is truly overwhelming even for the most enthusiastic of us in the bunch. So, I’ve decided to summarize here what I learned in Atlanta about how to survive and thrive at the TESOL International Convention. I give you below five of my best suggestions for making the most of your time at TESOL. And, like any good teacher, I’ve tried to allocate you with alliterations to alleviate the trouble of trying to remember all my tremendous trips, I mean, tips! Hope you enjoy!
Apply the app
My first piece of advice is to apply the app. By that I mean, download the TESOL app—familiarize yourself with it, search for attendees with it, message other attendees with it, find presentations with it, schedule the talks you want to see with it. Seriously, this app was so useful. So, use it!
Find a friend
My second piece of advice is to find a friend at the conference who can help you acclimate. I was the only person from my school who went to Atlanta, but I was able to find a few friends from a previous school I taught at who were also attending. These colleagues were lifesavers when I first arrived. They helped me get from the airport to the convention center, store my luggage, check in, go to the first session, and eat dinner—all in the span of about 3 hours. Whew! After that first night, we all adventured around the conference separately, but I was so grateful for their help in learning how to navigate the conference—in fact, points #3 and #4 came from them!
Choose a cherry
My third piece of advice is to “choose a cherry.” Let me explain. As I mentioned above, the information available to you at the convention is astonishing. There is absolutely no way any human being could drink non-stop from that fountain and retain it all. So, decide ahead of time what you’re looking for from the conference. Narrow your focus to a few topics of interest for the week. For example, because I had recently started working at a community college for the first time, I chose to prioritize talks that would help me understand the uniqueness of the community college ESL landscape a bit better. This simple heuristic helped me choose between dozens of simultaneous talks more easily.
Eventually, I used this same principle of “choosing a cherry” within each session as well. At first, I was feverishly taking notes on everything each presenter said, but I soon wearied under the weight of information overload. So, instead, I began to listen for the cherry on top that I would take away from that session. You don’t need to remember everything (indeed, you can’t!), so just listen and ask yourself, “What is one thing I can take away from this session of the conference?” Write that down.
Sit on the sidelines
My fourth piece of advice is to sit on the sidelines. Now, I do not mean to say that you should not participate fully in the conference. Rather, I mean that, literally, if possible, sit on the edge of the aisle in the sessions you attend. Unfortunately, you will regularly have to choose between 3 or 4 concurrent talks that you really want to go to, and occasionally you will need to slip out of one to go to another. Sometimes you didn’t realize this was an hour-and-forty-five-minute session, and there’s another talk you’re dying to hear in an hour across the hall. Other times the session description was unclear, and now you realize that you’d prefer to spend this 30 minutes in a session that’s more relevant to your work. Whatever the case may be, it’s best if you sit near the edge of the row so you can exit respectfully and quietly if necessary.
Network with (n)tension
Finally, my fifth piece of advice is that you network with (n)tension (please pardon the poor punctuation—I was desperate for another alliteration!). With 6000 attendees at TESOL, it would be unrealistic to think that all of your random introductions pre- and post-sessions are going to spontaneously lead to productive collaborations in the future (I lost track of how many times I introduced myself to someone new after about 168). Relying on these chance meetings to connect you with a future mentor, collaborator, employer, or employee in the field is silly. Instead, use the TESOL app to strategize about who it is that you would like to connect with. Reach out to them and ask if you can grab coffee for 30 minutes. Maybe they work at a school you would like to; maybe they work in a subfield or a role you’re exploring; maybe they gave a talk on a topic you want to know more about. Regardless, be intentional about who you meet with and how. Those 5, 30-minute, strategically-planned, coffee breaks are much more likely to shape your career long after the conference than any of the 30, 5-minute, chance encounters before and after each session. So, be intentional, and go ye therefore and network!
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