After one has been to a few conferences, it becomes easy to tell from the very first moments whether each trip will have been worth it or not. NILE@21 started with Dave Allan’s touching reflection on the past 21 years, followed by two plenary sessions which set the tone for the weekend. On that same Friday evening, Jeremy Harmer got attendees to wonder about the future of ELT, and on Saturday morning Rod Bolitho presented a comprehensive overview of transitions in the life of a teacher. Their words made it clear to me that I would leave Norwich a changed teacher, which was the best outcome for which I could have hoped. The theme of the conference was, after all, ‘transforming teaching’. Mission accomplished.

Rod Bolitho closed his plenary with a quote from John Lennon’s song ‘How?’ – “How can I go forward if I don’t know which way I’m facing?” – and that question stayed in my mind during the talks and workshops I attended during the rest of the day. Indeed, how is it that so many of us teachers go on doing our job in this changing world without properly considering the manner in which our profession is being reshaped every day? It is imperative to acknowledge the fact that teaching is being transformed by forces from within and from outside the classroom. Jeremy Harmer had addressed that issue by mentioning examples of disruptive business models that have already altered the way many of us deal with taxis, hotels and retail shopping. He went on to ask what the future looks like for us, and no one in the auditorium of the University of East Anglia’s Julian Study Centre seemed to have an answer. During the conference, however, we would be presented with a few clues.

Starting with Harmer himself, several presenters discussed the ways technological innovations are creating new possibilities for teachers, and profoundly modifying students’ expectations. That is an inescapable reality, and I see how my workmates and I sometimes have trouble figuring out how to deal with students’ mobile devices in ways that add to the class rather than distract from it. Besides that, a question that becomes increasingly relevant is how to make students want to come to class in the first place when there are now so many websites and applications that promise to give them all they need in order to communicate, without the cumbersomeness of listening to teachers. What kind of difference can we actually make, and how?

As I listened to Tony Prince explain how attitudes can be changed by the way we present information, I was reminded of the transformative power of encouraging students through appropriate feedback. We are able to motivate learners of any age by listening to them, making a true effort to understand their needs, and presenting just enough challenges at every point. Finding the best strategy, however, has never been a simple task, as was made clear in Alan Pulverness’s discussion of methods and of the idea of a post-method pedagogy.

The teacher’s role as someone who can actually open doors to other cultures is the one that has motivated me perhaps more than anything else in my career. In separate sessions, Maria Heron and Claudia Ferradas presented imaginative and stimulating activities which are able to bring the real world into the classroom by means of authentic materials and intercultural approaches. Their approaches echoed a lot of what I learned at the NILE summer course on Advanced Language and Intercultural Awareness I had taken four years before, in which NILE trainer Uwe Pohl helped teachers from seven different countries understand how to go beyond language.

That is clearly a key concept, for it does not take a lot for a trained professional to be able to teach students how to speak and write with some degree of success… yet truly effective communication is another matter altogether. That is why it seems to me that teaching should indeed be transformed, as NILE@21 proposed. However, while all the delegates I met at the conference seemed to understand that well, which is hardly surprising for people who made the trip to Norwich, the absence of a modifier in the enunciation of NILE@21’s theme speaks volumes to what the real challenge is. That is because we would not imagine that it is enough to transform our teaching – even if that has to be the starting point. To transform teaching as a whole – to transform what is understood as teaching – is the challenge that lies before us.

That could be why a recurring theme – to which all speakers came back on the final day – was how to reach out to those who are outside our ‘tribe’, those willing to take the necessary time and money to go out and meet teachers from whom they can learn. Having taken advantage of the time off I got because of the summer Olympics to make the trip from Rio to Norwich just to attend the conference, I know how unusual that makes me. It is a pity that that is so, but then all the greater is the responsibility of those who were there to try and spread among our peers what we have learned.

Complaining about the materials that are made available to us and about the efforts of the academic departments of our respective schools is certainly easy enough, but an event such as NILE@21 has the power of reminding us that everything about what we do – teaching – is shaped on a daily basis by the very decisions we make, by whether we choose to embrace this multicultural world and technological innovations that are here to stay.

Teaching should indeed be transformed, and that transformation can only begin from the inside. We can get there by having the humility to listen and the generosity to share. We can do it anywhere in the world, but it is nice to be reminded that there is a safe harbour in lovely Norwich.

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