He smiled as he shook my hand. Not the uncomfortable smile of a stranger or the trained smile of a salesperson, when the eyes don’t quite smile the same way as the mouth, but a smile of genuine warmth and welcome that is utterly enveloping. There really was a moment where the noise around us faded and all my senses fused together to make sure I was paying attention to connecting with this man. We began our first conversation as we had so many times before, with friendly banter which soon turned to deep discussion. For though it was the first time we had spoken in person, we had already made strong links through our ideas and opinions in other forms.

Rob O’Brien (@robandart) taught with my mum quite a few tides ago at a school in Sydney and thus is one of many people who knew me before I existed. The Byzantine threads which bind many teachers to each other span many contexts: a shared Ed Psych lecture, a shared office in their first school, a shared coffee at a seminar, and, increasingly, a shared conversation through digital media. Add a layer of family disposition to teaching – as my family has – and suddenly you realise the web of human connection in the education community runs deep, wide, and throbs with life.

It was a genuine pleasure to meet Rob this week at EduTech 2014, the 4th annual educational technology conference and this year held at the Brisbane Convention Centre in Queensland. Advertised as an event with “over 5000” registered attendees (most of which are educators of all sectors and stripes), in converstation with Jon Chivers of ACE Events, the actual number was more like 8000. This makes it the biggest educational technology conference in Australia. Lucky they had the entire convention centre to house that many bodies and enough material to stimulate that many minds.

Meeting Rob as well as too many fantastic people for my Codral-supported brain to remember at the moment was the most significant part of EduTech for me. Yes, we had Sir Ken Robinson deliver a very powerful keynote on creativity (touching on the detrimental nature of PISA, the impact of industrial model schooling, population and demographic changes, with plenty of strong evidential and anecdotal evidence to keep the talk moving). Yes, we had Prof Sugata Mitra outline his thoughts, concerns and dreams for the future of education in what I think was one of the most powerfully gentle keynotes I’ve ever seen. Yes, we had Ewan McIntosh & Tom Barrett, Dan Haesler and Judy O’Connell, Jenny Luca and Adam Spencer, also Microsoft and Intel and Google. We had the brains. We had the sponsors. We had the venue.

In the midst of all this… literally in the middle of several dozen vendors… armed with nothing more than a TV, speakers and a microphone, and a whole lot of ideas, was the TeachMeet Lounge. Given to us by the EduTech organisers and seen by the team of people involved in its creation as an experiment in friendly subterfuge, we ran four TeachMeet sessions – each with four speakers – over the two days. They were quick, they were relevant, they were meaningful. From topics like innovative use of Google Forms through to the potential impact of dysgraphia on the learning lives of kids, many people who participated in our experiment went away with at least one or two things they could apply in their classroom the very next day.

It would be easy to say that the TeachMeets were a quaint oddity amongst the “real” or “serious” business of EduTech. It’s much harder to think about which of the two – the TeachMeet gatherings or the entire rest of the conference – might have a bigger impact on an individual teacher and by association their practice. I’m not an idealist who is blind to the realities of the modern commercial nature and purpose of conferences. To get those brains, to get that venue, to gather that many people in a single place does require some fairly significant corporate and/or government support. I get it. But I do wonder when and if the tide will shift. Will people politely sit in the sponsors’ keynotes – cleverly titled anything but “sales pitch” – and sit checking their emails or playing Clash of Clans (as I saw several people doing) or will they vote with their feet and go do something else?

If the Twitter stream was anything to go by, not many people were keen to sit and listen to product placement – especially for products they are either intimately familiar with or don’t really need to deal with and so will ignore – and made their voices heard.

However, the very fact that the EduTech organisers were keen to us to run our own show in the midst of the conference shows that even the top echelons of professional development organisations are now aware of a new path of professional learning. This path, much to the frustration of institutions, systems and – I’m sure – sponsors, is not a single path down which a line of educators walks, hand in hand, but is more like a 3D highway, where any and all directions are possible, and most are chosen by the educator themselves.

This was also highlighted at LeadMeetSyd, the first teachmeet for leaders (mostly executive level educators) which was held at NSW Parliament House on May 29th. Presentation topics ranged from student wellbeing through innovation through targeted curriculum planning and more. All sectors were represented both in participants and presenters. It was also wonderful to see the Minister of Education for NSW, Adrian Piccoli, attend to make new connections with those at the forefront of his portfolio. Jeanette James, a keen teachmeeter and amazing educator, even helped him sign up to Twitter (let’s be positive and encouraging to our Minister online!)

Adding to this the experience of running two workshops at the Oxford Education Conference (#oec2014) on Friday May 30th, it was certainly a week heaving with learning and experience that I won’t soon forget. Hopefully I’ll be able to retain the positive energy and outstanding ideas I absorbed from my colleagues in each of these contexts. There were many inspiring moments, and a few particularly special ones such as my meeting Rob, and I have a growing sense that despite the pressures and problems facing education today, teachers have a significant and central role in building a positive future for our country and the world.

Thank you to those who organised, led and supported these events. I’m truly blessed to be part of such an awe inspiring network of professionals, as I am thankful to those who give their own time, experience and creativity to make this kind of learning happen. Special mentions have to go to Simon Crook, Steve Box, Simon McKenzie and David Gall who hosted the EduTech TMs with me, the presenters who shared their ideas, Cam Malcher who runs the TER Podcast with Corinne Campbell, and a big virtual round of applause to Michelle Hostrup for organising LeadMeetSyd. Also, of course, Jon Chivers and the EduTech organising team who ran a great conference and embraced the principles of teachmeet with good intention and good humour.

Teachers are now more than a voice in the crowd in terms of their own professional learning. They have agency. They have choice. Teachers can invent their own professional learning experiences above, beyond and beside what they do to meet the requirements of their system or structure.

So, if we – if you – are more than just a voice in the crowd… what are you going to say?