By Lýdia Machová
You know how they say that turning an ‘I’ into a ‘we’ turns ‘illness’ into ‘wellness’? Well, in real life, it doesn’t quite work out that way. From the 5th to the 8th of March, IATEFL Slovenia held its annual conference at Terme Topolšica – a spa and wellness centre in the hills of northern Slovenia. Unfortunately, amid the ‘we’ of 60 speakers and 200 participants, I was ill. I participated as much as I could, but as you read on, you will understand why I was so disappointed to miss out on so much of what this conference had to offer.
My expectations were high as I set out for the conference. First, Lyn Steyne (a friend and chair of the Slovak Chamber of English Teachers) had reacted to the news of my proposal’s acceptance with the words “You lucky dog!” Then the organizers kept posting interesting things on the Facebook event page, including pictures of the hand-made presents we would all find in our welcome bags. Finally, there were the highly unusual offerings in the program, things such as a paraffin hand bath during an interactive chatroom. I can tell you it got me curious. But it wasn’t until I arrived at the venue that I understood just how amazing this conference would be.
Set in beautiful mountainous surroundings just one hour from Ljubljana, Topolšica makes a perfect place for a friendly conference of this type. Not too big to get lost, not too small to get bored, and most of all with cosy thermal pools and an enticing wellness centre under your nose.
After the opening plenary on Thursday by Slovenian teacher and teacher trainer Mojca Belak, we spent a very nice evening getting to know each other and even presenting pieces of our cultures – the best of our food and drinks. I really loved this idea; it made the whole conference much less formal and much friendlier. There were speakers from as far away as Australia and from such exotic places as Azerbaijan. Being the only representative from Slovakia, I made sure no one left that international evening without learning the most useful phrase in Slovak: “strč prst skrz krk”J. And so we talked the evening away munching on Austrian cookies, Bosnian cakes, and even our famous Slovak Snehulky candy. Of course, there was Slovenian wine and Rakia (with a sample from each Balkan country) to wash it all down.
As pleasant as this little intercultural chit-chat was, it was not the highlight of the first day of the conference. That came at 10 p.m. when the hotel pool opened its gates exclusively for the conference participants in order to have the first ever plenary talk given in a swimming pool! Yes, you read that right. While soaking in Topolšica’s warm thermal waters, in the cool night air of 4°C, and with a full moon shining above our heads, we listened to Mark Andrews’ words echoing around the pool. What an unusual, unforgettable conference setting that was! Mark reminded us of what we, water and the stars have in common and gave us a plenary with a real difference – just as the conference booklet had promised.
The conference continued at full strength on Friday morning with four talks or workshops running simultaneously. If some participants thought the Thursday plenary in the pool too ‘normal’, then they were surely surprised by the second delivered by Erika Osváth from Hungary – she put on a baseball cap in front of the full plenary room and showed us a piece of her rapping talent! She gave us indisputable proof that rhymes and rhythm make learners remember better. Why indisputable? During her morning plenary, we all jointly created a short rap song relevant to the conference, and you could hear participants humming it later at dinner. Another unforgettable workshop was given by Jean McCollister together with her special teacher assistant, her dog. She showed us how bringing a well-trained dog into the classroom can enhance the learning process and help students learn such things as irregular verbs or prepositions.
The first day packed full of inspiring talks and workshops ended with yet another opportunity to get together and have some more fun – competing in a pub quiz. With 25 teams of five, everybody had the chance to test their knowledge, learn something new, and get a little less serious (which happens as you lip sing a pop song, drink beer quickly and eat chili peppers). The most knowledgeable, the most resilient and perhaps the luckiest among us won great prizes, including a trip to London. Wouldn’t you drink a pint in one go or eat several chili peppers to get to go to London for free?
Saturday was just as rich in interesting ideas and tips for English teachers. There were 20 more talks/workshops to choose from (one of them mine on helping our students be more autonomous), two more plenaries and, let’s be honest, eight very tempting saunas. That’s what made this conference even more pleasant than the talks themselves – if you felt a little too full of ideas for an hour or two, you could easily sneak off and let the those ideas sink while getting a massage with red oranges or a honey treatment after some time spent in a Finnish sauna.
For those who felt the need to get outside and move around a bit in the fresh air, the organizers prepared a walking tour which included the place where the German forces finally surrendered at the end of the World War II in 1945.
To get us all moving after two days of sitting in conference rooms, the organisers came up with a great idea: a disco! And, although English teachers definitely do know how to have fun on their own, it was even more fun with a professional dance trainer who taught us how to shake it until we made it. And so we danced the last night away.
There was so much to learn, to gain from this conference, a lot to remember and a lot to return for in future editions of the IATEFL Slovenia conference. Unfortunately, I must say that the life-lesson I learned was somewhat different from other participants’: ‘sweating out’ a cold in a sauna does NOT work. Seriously, do not ever try it or you’ll get an even worse flu-like cold which will keep you in bed for several days. I don’t think have to stress how sorry I felt as I lay in my bed to be missing out on much of the coziest conference I have ever been to.
If you ever get the chance to go to IATEFL Slovenia’s annual conference, pack your notepad for interesting ideas, your swimsuit to enjoy the nice extras of the conference and don’t forget the vitamin C! With this in your bag, you will be in for an unforgettable, most pleasant, friendly and indeed cozy ELT conference.
Lýdia is a freelance interpreter and PhD student of Translation studies at Comenius University in Bratislava. She teaches lessons of consecutive and simultaneous interpreting as well as advanced English. She has several years of experience teaching in language schools and as a private tutor. Her greatest drive in both life and work is the belief in autonomous learning, which has helped her master several foreign languages and keeps her motivated to continue learning. She is currently studying, teaching and completing her dissertation in Krakow.
The Executive Committee of the SKA would like to thank our sister association, IATEFL Slovenia, for hosting Lydia as our representative and putting on a brilliant conference.