Dear education graduates: Be fearless, be proud, develop x-ray vision

It was an honor to give the commencement speech to the Masters in Education graduates of San José State University. This is what I told them: 

I want to thank Miss Cabrie – and the College of Education and all of you for this invitation and for reminding me where I came from.

I remember sitting at my university just like you’re sitting here now.  That was 1980 – 37 years ago.  And I’m 39.

I look at you and it occurs to me that I have socks older than some of you people.

I’m old.  But I look good.  And I feel good.  And I’m excited about how you look.  You look like a garden.  You’re beautiful.  And what you’re about to do with your lives is beautiful.

Welcome to the most vital, most important, most influential profession in the universe.  Something in the world is going to change because of something you saw – something you do – some seed you plant in the mind of one of your students.

You won’t be alone.  You’ll have your colleagues.  You’ll have the CTA and you’ll have me at the NEA.  You’ll have parents and communities that respect you and the miracles you’ve been called on to perform.

You’ll have your students.  And they will love you. And you will love them… but not every day. 

But every now and then something will happen where you will see love – in the most frustrating, chaotic times…  you’ll feel it.  And it’ll make all the difference in the world.

And let me just say, this work is hard. And the rest of the world won’t always see that you’re making a difference.

There are a lot of politicians out there (bless their hearts) – (I found out you can pretty much say anything you want about someone if you say “bless their hearts” before you say it.)

A lot of politicians think they can judge what we do by a student’s standardized test score. I asked a group of high school students what they thought of that.

One guy raised his hand and said:  I get good grades if I have a good teacher.  I get good grades if I have a bad teacher.  I just get good grades ‘cause I’m really smart.

And I thought:  wow!  A+ in self-esteem.

A girl raised her hand and said: My worst year in school was when a lot was happening back home and I just kind of gave up on myself.  A teacher asked me to stay after school and just let me talk.  She probably saved my life, but I don’t think anyone would know she was the best teacher I ever had by looking at my crappy grades that year.

So today, I thought what I wanted to send you off with was what I think has made me a good teacher – because I am fabulous.  I’m amazing. 

But I didn’t start out that way.  I’m going to tell you 3 things that I wish someone had told me when I was sitting in your place 37 years ago.

Lesson #1:  Be fearless.  Be so confident that you’re not afraid of standing up for yourself.

I had been teaching about 6 weeks when Dr. Johnson walked into my 4th grade unannounced with a clipboard and sat in the back of the room taking notes. I was doing something very creative. I think it was having my kids put one line under the noun and two lines under the verb – I’m pretty sure I’m the first one who ever did that.

He sat there for about five minutes and then got out of his chair and walked to the front of the room.  He said:  Mrs. Eskelsen, give me the chalk.  (I’ll be explaining “chalk” later in the program.)  I gave him the chalk.  He said: Have a seat. I had a seat.

And he continued the lesson having everyone very engaged – put up one finger if you think this and two fingers if you think that.  The kids were well-behaved because they were scared to death of him.  We were all scared to death of him.

He came back to me and handed me the chalk and said:  That, Mrs. Eskelsen, is how you do it.

I was so embarrassed.  I just thought, how bad a teacher must be that the principal had to show me how to do my job.

I guess I was still pretty shaken at recess because in the faculty room, Margo, one of the 3rd grade teachers, asked me if I was alright, and I told her what happened.

And she was furious… with me.  She said: Don’t you ever let anyone undermine your authority again. The next time that man tries to pull a stunt like that, you just say:  Dr. Johnson, I’m working.  If you need to talk to me, you can make an appointment. 

Yeah, ‘cause that’s going to happen.

A few weeks later, we’re drilling times tables.  Dr. Johnson walks in unannounced with a clipboard and sits at the back of the room.  He waits a few minutes and says:  Mrs. Eskelsen, I have a suggestion…

And I said:  Dr. Johnson, I’m in the middle of my lesson.  I’d be happy to talk to you at recess.

And I turned around to write something on the board.  And when I turned back around, I’m sure it wasn’t my imagination that I saw a smile on his sadistic little face.

You’re going to be nervous.  It takes time to be fabulous, and you want to be open to coaching and questioning and learning.  But be fearless in protecting your professional integrity. 

Lesson #2:  Understand that you are a national treasure. 

The work you will do cannot be done by just anyone.  The trust that is being placed in you is vital to this nation – we are the foundation of everything.  Be unashamedly proud.

I know that violence is not the answer, but I have been known to slap people who start sentences with:  Well, I’m just a teacher…

No. You are not. You are the foundation of our democracy, of progress, of science, of justice, of ethics, of everything. 

I don’t get people who don’t get that.

I gave a speech years ago at Utah State University.  It was open to all students.   About 300 people.  I was actually talking about politics and lobbying and our recent success at improving rural transportation funding formulas, and there were at least 17 folks still awake and hanging on my every word.

And I’m looking at the crowd and my eyes keep coming back to a young man sitting in the third row with a kind of goofy grin on his face, and I think:  Oh.  Sad.  Self-medicating.

And then all of a sudden it hits me, and I say:  Chris?  Is that you?

He says:  Hi, Mrs. Eskelsen.

I had Chris 11 years earlier as a 4th grader and here is this 20-year-old man sitting in front of me.  You will find that the laws of physics do not apply to us.  You will blink, and your students will grow up before your eyes. 

And yet, we will never get any older.  It’s amazing.

So Chris stayed behind to talk to his old teacher.

I said:  So what are you studying?

He said:  Political science and government.  I’m going to be a social studies teacher.

I said:  I’m so excited!

He said:  Boy, my parents aren’t.

I said:  Why?

He said:  They keep reminding me that I was on honor roll all through high school. They say with my grades, I could be anything.  Why would I settle for just being a teacher?

I was so mad I could have smoked a pickle.  I wanted a parent-teacher conference now.  Why were they discouraging this amazing young man?  Why weren’t they alerting the media that their child had decided to become the most important person on the planet?

And then I looked at that goofy grin on Chris’s face and I understood that he understood.  That he hadn’t settled for anything.  He had chosen to do powerful work.

Believe in your power.  Believe in your own importance – not out of a sense of arrogance.  But you have to believe in the worth of our work before you’ve earned the right to ask anyone else to believe in it.  Be proud of doing the world most important work.

And finally step #3:  Develop x-ray vision. 

You must be able to physically see through skin and bones.  You must truly see your students for the miracles they are.  You will be the teacher, and you have to be able to see things that are invisible to mere mortals.

Once, my 6th graders were studying space and I gave them a writing assignment.  I told them to imagine that the Earth was on a collision course with a giant comet and when it hit, everything would be destroyed.

But scientists had built a giant space colony that could hold millions of people and would travel 20 years to the next habitable planet.

They had to pretend that they were among the lucky ones chosen to be saved on the space colony.  With them, they could take 3 people and 3 things.  They had to chose three people they could stand to be with for 20 years and what three things would still be useful to them after 20 years. 

They got into their writing groups; they brainstormed ideas; they wrote their first drafts; made their edits and re-wrote in their best cursive handwriting and then we had ‘publication’ day – which meant I read each one out loud to the class.

Most kids took their friends, family, rock stars, movie stars.  One kid took his pregnant neighbor (so he could get two for the price of one).

No one took the teacher.  No one got the bonus points.

They were taking things like recyclable paper and computer programs and Nintendo games and hair mousse and only the essentials for survival.

Most were creative.  Hilarious.  Great time.  Then I got to Jason’s paper. 

“I live with my mom and my dad and my two brothers and I could never leave one of them behind to die so I would give up my seat so they could all go and then I would hope that the scientists were wrong about the Earth being destroyed but if they were right I would help them build a space laser and then we would blast the comet before it hit and then I would take the next space ship and then I would catch up with my family.”

What a terrible run-on sentence.  And most of the words were misspelled.  But I’m a good teacher.  So I wondered, where do I put the A+ in compassion?  And where on his report card do I tell his parents that their son is specially gifted and talented in humanity and in hope?

The best I could do was to walk over to him and put my arms around him and give him a big hug.  He gagged.

But I needed to let him know and let all the other kids know how much I valued what he had to say.  It was an incredible lesson – for me. 

My lesson was lousy.  It was foolish for me to trivialize something like billions of people dying for an entertaining writing activity.  Jason understood that. He taught me that.

I never repeated that particular assignment.  You will find that it is a perk of your profession that we will often become better people because of the lessons we learn from our students.

See them for the miracles they are.  Respect them.  Learn from them.  They will teach you how to teach them.

Take all those lessons:  being fearless and proud and respectful of powers that are invisible and then do one more thing…

Do the most powerful thing a fabulous educator can do.  Take all those talents that are in you and give them all up.  Give all you have in you to your kids.

 And it will all come back. 

It might not come back to you.  But it will come back.  Something you say.  Something you do will change the world.  Some seed you plant will bloom. And if you wrap it in love, it will grow into a garden and make the world more beautiful.

You are going to be a teacher.  Carry the mission of a public school in your heart:

 You are the gardeners.  Make those gardens bloom.  Amigas, amigos que honor estar con ustedes.  I am humbled to have been your guest today. 

Mil gracias.


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