Touching the hem of greatness (not)

I had a familiar sense of anticipation recently as I started to look at the program for the Melbourne Writer’s Festival. What wonderful opportunities were on offer to be in the presence of icons, idols and personages!

It reminded me of a lesson I learned, or should have learned, a long time ago. I say should have learned, because, like many lessons, I don’t always heed it. When I first attended early childhood conferences, especially national or international ones, and selected sessions, I always chose those presented by well-known speakers or authors whose writing I admired, regardless of the topic. Yes, I was an early childhood groupie!

I had a professor at university many years ago who, encouraging us to attend a lecture that we students were pretty sure was going to be mind-numbingly boring, announced in her typically formal style, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I implore you not to miss this opportunity to touch the hem of greatness’. Maybe that started my addiction to hem touching the great and famous!

Using fame or fan-club-member adoration as the criterion at times led and still occasionally leads to disappointment. Sometimes the person turns out to be not a very good speaker – incomprehensible, disorganised – or arrogant or intolerant – or some other way that I end up wishing I hadn’t given myself the opportunity to learn about. Some people who write very well are not good speakers. Some gurus are brilliant speakers, writers or researchers but are not very nice people.

With the Early Childhood Australia National Conference—Seasons of Change—coming up, I thought I would make a suggestion for you to consider any time you’re going to a conference, whether it’s local, national or international. I recommend that you use a mix of criteria for selecting sessions to attend. If you go for presenter fame, expect to sometimes be in awe and amazed and at other times disappointed.

The most reliable criterion to use is your interest in the topic. When that is the basis for your selection, you will almost never go wrong so long as you approach the session with an open mind. Sometimes you might not learn anything new about the topic, but you may gain insights into ways of thinking or talking about the topic – a different perspective. If you’re bored you can learn that you know more than you thought you did!

Remember that the most powerful learning at conferences is usually the conversations that occur about sessions rather than the sessions themselves. Talk to people. Ask questions. Listen to others’ perspectives.

Sometimes take a risk and choose a topic or presenter you’ve never heard of. It might allow you to touch the hem of someone who will be great in the future or to be one of the first to learn about the next ‘big thing’ in early childhood!

What is the best conference session you’ve attended? The worst? Why?

Anne Stonehouse

Anne Stonehouse AM lives in Victoria and works as a consultant, writer and facilitator of professional learning in early childhood. She has published many books, articles and other resources for educators and parents. Her main professional interests are the nature of good quality curriculum for babies and toddlers and family-educator relationships in early learning settings. She was a member of the writing team in the Charles Sturt University-based consortium that developed the national Early Years Learning Framework. She is currently engaged in a number of projects related to the national and Victorian Frameworks.

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