2014 – looking back and looking ahead

The annual IATEFL conference in Harrogate (a town between Leeds and York) was a pleasure to attend. And not only because I was elected Vice President with a show of hands, but also because I had the pleasure to attend several sessions, including four plenaries. My favourite was Sugata Mitra’s plenary, who spoke about his exhilarating experiments about how computers can do the job of the teacher. I think a few participants got his message wrong, complaining that Sugata would wish to get rid of teachers altogether. Not so! What he was suggesting was that children who are deprived of having teachers available in rural India (and in many other remote places in the world) may well learn a lot from the internet and also from one another.

Péter Medgyes with Carol Read and Tamás Lőrincz
With Carol Read and Tamás Lőrincz

I also liked Michael Hoey’s plenary, especially that he praised to the skies Michael Lewis’s groundbreaking book of the time, ’The Lexical Approach’ (1993). It was a special pleasure to bump into Michael (Lewis) himself, because he hasn’t been seen much in the past ten years. He is not only a great visionary and a person with a charmingly wry sense of humour, but he is also remembered for a fringe publishing company he was running. LTP would bring out the most inspiring books in the 1990s and early 2000s, including his own.

I wasn’t careful enough to plan my journey to Harrogate properly. Instead of flying to Manchester, the nearest airport to Harrogate, I arrived at Heathrow, which may compete for the title of the most abominable airport in the world. I had also bought a ticket through Trainline for a trifle 100 pounds. The information booklet warned me that the ticket was non-refundable, so were I to miss that train I’d have to buy another one. Three hours between landing at Heathrow and catching the train at King’s Cross should be enough, I told my wife as I was booking the ticket. She said it might not. ’Why don’t you give it one more hour’s grace?’ ’Four hours? Nonsense!’ I replied. As fate would have it, our plane landed with almost an hour’s delay, so I ran like mad to the tube terminal at Heathrow. I’m sure I beat the world record in long-distance running. On the tube I was counting the minutes, panic-stricken. Two minutes per station? I might just about catch it. Arriving at King’s Cross I ran to the ticket machine to validate my pre-paid ticket but stressed as I was I couldn’t figure out how it worked. I dashed to the ticket office, pushing my way forward in the queue apologising, then down the platform. The doors were just closing as I hopped on the last carriage. Made it! The doors between the carriages kept opening and closing as I was moving towards the one with my reserved seat. The front carriage, damn it! As I got there sweating profusely, there was a man sitting in my seat. I showed him my ticket – he showed me his. The same number. We called the ticket collector to artbitrate. ’Sorry, sir, you’re on the wrong train.’ ’Which one of us?’ I asked in a dying voice. ’You, sir’ pointing to my opponent. ’Where can I get off?’ the poor man asked. ’At the next stop, sir, in York. But you’ll have to buy another ticket,’ he added apologetically. York was a good two hours’ away from London, and as he explained he was in fact heading for a town in the opposite direction. The moral of the story is: ’Always trust your wife!’

Not long after Harrogate, I drove to a conference in Beregszász in the Ukraine, just a hop over the Hungarian border, where half the population is ethnic Hungarian, half Ukrainian. We were assured that Beregszász was a small town, a long way away from the trouble spots, so not to worry. The conference was held in the beautiful baroque building of the Transcarpathian Hungarian College. Regretfully, the conference was attended by fewer teachers than expected due to the precarious situation in the country. Nevertheless, it was an extremely well-organised conference – thanks to Ilona Huszti, who was not only the chief organiser but a wonderful host, too.

On arriving at our hotel in Beregszász, the four-member delegation from Hungary were told at the registration desk that breakfast would be served between 7.30 and 9.30. We agreed to meet in the breakfast room at eight so as to arrive in time for the conference due to begin at nine o’clock. Before we went to bed, one of us remarked, ’Don’t forget that Ukrainian time is one hour ahead!” Entering the breakfast room the next morning we found no one there save a cleaning woman busy mopping up the floor. We waited and waited until a waitress turned up half an hour later with an agitated look on her face. ’No problem,’ she said in Hungarian and served us a lovely breakfast before long. With our stomachs full, we walked to the nearby college. Not a single soul was there except for another cleaning lady. Half an hour later the registration desk opened and a young colleague said with a broad smile: ’The early bird…’. It was hours later that we learnt that in Beregszász there were two different time zones: Ukrainian time, which is one hour ahead, and Hungarian time, which is the same as in Hungary. Both of them are official, and before two friends meet up they always clarify which time they have in mind. Do you know of any other town in the world with a similarly strange custom?

For me April was a very busy month. My third trip took me to the ELTA National Conference in Tirana. I went under the auspices of SOL, a non-profit organisation based in Devon. Under the leadership of Grenville Yeo, a modest and highly efficient guy, SOL has been running low cost and high quality study trips for teachers and learners of English from Central Eastern Europe for nearly 25 years. I very much looked forward to going to Tirana because the local teachers were reported to be exceptionally enthusiastic professionals. (And also because I hadn’t been to Albania before – one more country to tick off.) Indeed, it was wonderful to be there! The conference venue was on top of a mountain overlooking Tirana, with a beautiful view all around. More importantly, seldom had I met such an enthusiastic and lively bunch of teachers! They well deserved the IH/IATEFL Training Award they received this year. My special thanks should go to my host, Shpresa Delija, who stepped down as president of ELTA at this conference. Judged by the way she was hugged and kissed by her colleagues, she was a mother figure in the ELT world of Albania. Everything was perfect in Albania – if only I could forget the weather. It was almost as awful as it normally is in the UK…

Next comes June with a trip to Tuzla…