A Colorful Account of the 2005 TESOL Conference

It’s spring in San Antonio. It’s warm, the leaves have sprouted, the flowers are blooming, and formations of ducklings trail after their mothers in the river.

Another sight of spring this year is the flocks of ESL teachers that have landed in San Antonio for the 2005 International TESOL conference. On March 29th, 2005 approximately 9,000 of them converged on south Texas from all parts of the world. It was a linguistic buffet to say the least.

I was there as the representative of the Boston branch of my school. My mission, which I chose to accept, was three-fold:

1) Meet my counterparts from our California branches.

2) Professional development (To show the powers that be during our accreditation period this summer)

3) Get as much free material as possible.

I had never been to Texas before and in all honesty, I never wanted to. I grew up in Burlington, Vermont and had Howard Dean for a governor and Bernie Sanders as a congressman.

Need I say more?

Nevertheless I was more than filled with glee at the prospect of not teaching and getting out of Boston for a week. I’d get some nice professional development, and the whole thing was paid for by the school. But ultimately what excited me the most was the weather forecast for that week in San Antonio that week, sunshine and more sunshine. In Boston it was a ‘wintry mix.’

I flew Continental to Houston, which is about a four hour flight, too short for a movie, but long enough to be exceedingly tedious. Coming from the land of John Kerry, it was very uncomfortable to hear we were landing at George Bush airport. I quickly hopped on the plane for San Antonio and began looking for any signs of Texas-ness. I was immediately rewarded by the man who plopped into the chair next to me on the plane. It wasn’t his size or accent that displayed his Texas-ness so well, but rather the giant box of pork ribs and barbecue sauce he brought with him.

And it was immediately clear that this guy loved pork ribs.

When I landed, it was Tuesday afternoon. My first task was to get to the hotel. The school had booked me into the Radisson and I’d have to take a cab. I got in the taxi queue and waited. I was immediately joined by an elderly woman, who asked,

“Are you here for the conference?”

Before I could even finish saying,”yes,” she interrupted,

“Well, I’m here for a conference for teachers of English as a second language.”

She continued talking to me but I wasn’t listening. I just nodded and gave various confirmations. I let her take the first cab and waited for another one. Watching the other teachers pour out of the airport, I was confronted with the realization that I was about to spend the week with 9,000 people who love to talk!

After I checked in, I headed to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center to check it. I walked in the front door and was hit by a blast of air conditioning. I walked down a corridor bigger than my entire school and entered a large hall. It was a beehive of activity with people buzzing hither and thither. I went to the registration desk and got my name tag, schedule and complimentary tote-bag. The name tag must have been printed on some kind of hand-crafted papyrus because they told us if we lost it, it would cost $25 to reprint it. After that, there was nothing to do. I was alone and tired in Texas. I proceeded to buy a cheap bottle of wine, went back to my hotel room and drank as much as I could stomach.

Wednesday morning was wonderful. I woke up, looked at the clock, saw that it was 9:00am, pulled the blanket over my head and went back to sleep. I took a long hot shower, read the paper, and enjoyed a cup of tea before gingerly proceeding to the conference center. I arrived about 10:30am.

Everyone had their identification cards hanging from their neck. Scanning the names and schools, I could see there were a lot of international teachers. Most of the teachers were well-dressed and professional looking, especially the foreigners. I, however, was a glaring exception in my shorts and sandals. As far as I was concerned, after suffering New England winter, I’d be damned if I wasn’t going enjoy the warmth to its fullest.

The presentations that filled the morning were given by the big heads of the industry. There were even whispers of the possible attendance of Queen Azar herself. The titles of the presentations were stirring things like New Trends in Contrastive and Intercultural Rhetoric and Evaluating Teacher Effectiveness through Online Journals and Surveys.

The first one I attended was called The Challenges of Transitioning from Teacher to Administrator. It sounded good because I was only recently appointed Director of Studies for my school and I learned quickly that it wasn’t easy to be a manager. There were five professors from various universities giving the talk. Each of them related the different problems people in my position faced and highlighted the important issues. Unfortunately, they were not so forthcoming with solutions. This deficiency persisted through many presentations I saw that weekend, all explanation and no solutions.

The next presentation I headed to dealt with the upcoming changes in the TOEFL exam. However, when I arrived at the room, there was a line out the door. It was impossible to get in. Unfortunately, this was not the only time I faced this problem. In fact, the powers that be seemed to book all the popular and useful presentations during the week in the smallest rooms.

Another thing I realized by the end of the first day, is that good titles don’t necessarily make good presentations. I was surprised at how many people didn’t know how to give presentations. They mumbled, turned their backs, had bad visuals, and often lacked any personality at all.

I was also shocked by some of the things that passed for new, revolutionary techniques. During one presentation on increasing fluency in the classrooms, the presenter went into an extended passionate discourse that went something like this:

“See, you have to care about your students, because when you don’t care, then they can sense that. So when they speak English, you should say, GOOD, YOU’RE SPEAKING ENGLISH!!!

I know I sound negative but I do accept that maybe I was just unlucky. Overall, however about 80% of what I saw was useless to me. Ironically, the best presentations I saw were about subjects that weren’t really useful for me.

One of the things I did love about the conference was seeing all the publishers. I’m not sure why, but it was cool to see so much good material. There were tons of free stuff and I filled my bag with them. They were all there: Longman, Oxford University Press, Mcgraw-Hall, Delta and dozens of other smaller ones. Unfortunately for me, about half of the stuff seemed to be for using computers and technology in the classroom. To have any use for that, my school would first have to have technology in the classroom.

It was also infinitely creepy to be in a massive room full of hundreds of salesmen. They all stood ready to pounce like the women in the perfume section at Macy’s. The worst ones would spy your name on the tag and call you over like they were your best friend. I actually felt bad for them having to do that. It was probably a lot worse for them.

In addition to the publishers, there was also a special section for posters during lunch. These were basically people who weren’t given their own slot on the presentation schedule, so were give half a bulletin board. The area filled up so quickly that I could barely move. People were pushing a bit, trying to squeeze through the crowds and stepping on my feet. I was honestly expecting someone to yell, “Freebird!!” I didn’t stay long at all in there.

The sessions ended each day around 5:00pm and 9,000 ESL teachers flooded out of the intense air conditioning of the conference center into the blessed 85 Degrees of San Antonio in March.

Again, I can’t tell you enough how great the weather was.

The heat combined with the swank ness of San Antonio’s River walk made for prime Margarita drinking. The evening was long and the dark crept in so slowly that you hardly noticed it. Disco, Rock and Country music began pouring from the clubs. The city’s barbecues were fired up, margaritas were being poured.

Socially, I did pretty poorly. I was alone for a lot of it and it was probably my own fault. The idea of just sauntering over to someone and trying to curry their favor was just repulsive to me. I did meet two colleagues from the other branches of my school, but one was sick and the other with her mother so I didn’t really have anyone to go out with. Mostly, I was home by 10:00pm. The rest of my night generally consisted in going through the catalogue for the following day and circling titles that interested me. It complemented the cheap red wine perfectly.

Each day went, more or less, the same and looking back, it went all too quickly. Despite all I’ve said so far, it was a good experience and I would love to go next year. It was affecting to be around 9,000 people who really cared about teaching and it was a great impetus to improve my own skills. It also gave me more of a sense of the industry as a whole and my place within it.

And good God, I miss the weather….

By Mike Dunphy

Mike Dunphy was born and bred in Northern Vermont. He joined the Peace Corps and began his teaching career in Estonia. Mike taught for two years at Kilingi-Nomme high school in Estonia, later moving to Prague to deal with businessmen. He has also lived in Italy, and Slovenia where he stayed until this past July. Mike currently resides in Boston, where he is the Director of Studies in a language school. He plans on moving to Istanbul in August.