The NEA Foundation President and CEO Harriet Sanford Addresses University of Connecticut Neag School of Education Graduating Class, May 10, 2015
WASHINGTON, DC (May 18, 2015) – The NEA Foundation President and CEO Harriet Sanford shared her insights about the importance and the challenges of the profession and ended with powerful advice for new teachers: “Be gentle, kind and caring with your students. But be fierce about their education.”
Sanford’s May 10 remarks to the Neag School of Education’s graduating class come at a time when recent college graduates comprise the largest percentage of newly hired teachers nationwide and are becoming a significant proportion of the teaching force.
Sanford is an alumna of UConn, having earned a masters degree in public administration from the colleges of Liberal Arts and Sciences in 1979. The university recently awarded her an honorary doctorate of Humane Letters for her trailblazing support of public education, dedicated to the “betterment of society through access to quality education, cultural competency, and the arts.” Her remarks follow, below.
“Thank you. Parents, faculty, families, and soon to be graduates, it is a profound honor to be here at the University of Connecticut. I received my masters of public administration from UConn many years ago, and it is a pleasure to return today to talk to you about something dear to my heart… something that has driven me for most of my working life. And that is teaching.
Teaching matters. You hear that a lot, but it’s true. It matters. And so do the children we teach — every single child. You’ve put in the time, the hard work, and, at times, I’m sure, the tears to have earned this degree… to be ready to teach. But if you do not believe in the immense learning power of each and every student, no matter what the circumstances, neither you nor your students will be successful. Finding and nurturing that power is what teaching is all about, and can help you rejuvenate your commitment to teaching, no matter what the circumstance, at every stage of your career.
New research on brain science uses words like “mindset,” “grit,” “plasticity,” and “resilience” to drive home the idea that attitude matters, and that even the lowest-performing students can turn a page given the right encouragement. These words are all important, but I’d like to offer another word.
As a teacher, you must believe in yourself, in the power of education to change lives, and in what your students can do. I am standing before you as the daughter of a barely educated son of a sharecropper who married a poor Irish woman from a family steeped in a stubborn intolerance of anyone with brown skin, during an era when both were told that they could not marry each other.
My parents were not to be stopped by unfair laws or norms, so they chose their own way forward. They wed in 1952.
In my family, the idea of being in control of your own destiny was not a topic for debate. It was a belief. My father had faced daunting challenges — the Indiana Ku Klux Klan in his youth, racial bias in the military, and at times, illegal treatment at the hands of others. It was not lost on me that if my own father had succeeded and created a thriving family despite such challenges, whatever challenges I faced would be small in comparison.
In short, belief was a value my father lived, and because he did, his children did, too.
That belief propelled me through school — from my underfunded elementary school through high school and my forward-thinking college, where lived experiences were valued as much as any lecture. Everywhere I went, I knew I had to do two things---- give my best effort and believe in myself, and for the most part the rest would take care of itself.
But when I began teaching, I quickly realized that not every child was so lucky. In many ways, the disparities have only gotten worse since then. Our tax structure gives students in certain zip codes more opportunity than others—more resources, better paid teachers, and more opportunities that spark lifelong learning like clubs, community service, an array of arts and sports opportunities. The lack of these things makes the journey for those children harder, but not less important. But the difference isn’t all about funding and opportunity inequities. The deficit some children face is often purely about belief.
I recently read a book by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, and I had to fight back tears as he described his education and the one moment when a teacher recognized his ability. Charles says that something about how his own belief and vision of himself was utterly changed when one teacher made a chance remark and recognized him as a young scholar worthy of attention. He wrote, “It was the first time that I felt a teacher cared about me, truly saw me, or believed in me…. I felt life stir in me. I’d always known that I was smart, but when the teachers at Ringgold had treated me like I wasn’t, I’d lived down to their low expectations.”
After that day, Charles said he never got another bad grade. More importantly, the trajectory of his life changed… all because someone believed in him. You see ---Belief is the most important gift you can give all your students.
And those we empower to teach others, who like you have gained our trust, have a clear responsibility to be aware of each of our own implicit biases, which do not leave us. We must constantly examine ourselves to be sure that our beliefs—ingrained in us through a lifetime of experience—do not in any way interfere with our ability to believe in others.
We’re all here, as educators, because we know that every child is capable of learning and succeeding on some level. But when we quietly celebrate when students of color get over the cusp and score ‘proficient’ on a standardized test — but do not excel — we are letting those students down. Persistent achievement gaps in K-12, followed by high remediation rates at college, particularly for first-time and minority students, speak volumes about the irreparable damage done by low expectations.
Every teacher is a leader responsible for setting the norms and standards in the classroom. We must be bold and catch ourselves when we fall short, and also speak out about issues of race and poverty in and out of school. We must do whatever is necessary to help our students succeed, to eliminate any deficit our students may face, and to show our students that they matter.
The path to equal opportunities for all is an important chapter in our history as a nation that remains unfinished, and I am asking you to help write it.
I have said to you that teaching matters. And so do teachers. This is a time of great change in America’s schools and classrooms. In your studies and your clinical experiences, you’ve undoubtedly gotten a taste of the rapidly changing state of our education system. When you begin your first year as a teacher, you’ll undoubtedly get a much bigger one.
Over time, you’ll see that efforts to improve our education system, like history, move like a pendulum. If you stay in the classroom long enough, there’s a good chance that the things we’re spending the most time on now will be replaced by other priorities. And if you stay in the classroom a really long time, you may see those priorities shift back.
I’ve seen the pendulum swing a few times myself. In the 1960s, we saw a push for greater equity and relevance in learning. In the 1970s, we saw the back-to-basic movement trying to address the problem that Johnny couldn’t read. In the 1980s, A Nation at Risk forced states to raise standards and improve every aspect of education, ensuring that students were gaining a solid core of knowledge in key subject areas. Later, that effort morphed into the standards movement that brought with it more testing and accountability, but somehow forgot about the importance of teaching. Today, we’re trying to ensure that students have greater knowledge that is relevant and meaningful to them, and that they own what they learn, and can put it to use in any context. This is promising, and it is up to teachers to make it happen. Unlike what happened all too often over the past decades, teachers must shape, and not be shaped by, these efforts.
What you do in your classrooms will make all the difference, and you should not shy away from being bold and outspoken, not just around matters of equity, but around teaching and creating the kind of schools where every child can succeed.
Know that your voice is important. Know that it’s vital for real change. And know that at times, you may have to raise it to make sure you are heard — and continue to be heard.
Even if your voice isn’t heard by the powers that be in your school or your district, you can still challenge the status quo in a simple but very important way. Approach your teaching with the same mindset you hope to instill in your students — with a critical eye towards problem-solving, as a collaborative partner, and with a focus on the bigger issues in the community.
Yes, teaching matters. But community matters, too. As we talk about change, I’m happy to confirm that the era of the teacher working alone in the classroom with the door shut is now over.
As you begin your careers as educators, you’ll have more opportunities to learn from and be supported by your peers than at any time in history. Before you know it, you’ll be immersed in more faculty meetings, team meetings, data teams, working groups, professional learning communities, and cohorts than you’ll know what to do with.
All these meetings and teams can be daunting, and at times they will feel like a diversion from what you are doing in the classroom. But I can assure you they are not. In the past, too many new teachers felt isolated, completely alone with the enormous task of learning to teach. The classroom door is now open for all, and to be successful, you also need to be open — to your peers, your students, and also the larger community in which you teach.
To date, too much of the talk of educational reform, of reshaping our schools and teaching and learning, has ignored the world outside of our classrooms. As a teacher, you do so at your own peril. You’re also missing an enormous opportunity to grow, receive support, and feel connected to the children and communities you serve — and for them to feel connected to you.
When I was a teacher, it helped that many of us lived in the same communities we taught. We also shopped at the same grocery stores, played in the same parks, and volunteered for programs that mattered to all. I was emotionally and spiritually connected. It felt right.
Finally, don’t be afraid to open yourself to others who may need support, suggestions, even a mentor or a role model. Research has shown this is particularly important for people who grow up in poverty. Thinking back on my life, there was always someone there during complicated periods of transition in my own life. Without their sage advice, guidance, and support, it would have been hard for me to write my next chapter.
And now you’re about to write your first chapters as educators, and I don’t want to be the one standing in your way. But as I bring my comments to a close, I wanted to share the thoughts of a number of seasoned educators across the nation who I’ve worked with in recent years. Some are friends. Some have won awards. All have dedicated their lives to their students, and I asked them what advice they would give people entering the field.
It’s not just young people who know about crowdsourcing. In the spirit of building and working with community, I have asked for their aid and assistance in telling you the best wisdom about teaching there is to offer.
One wrote, “It’s not what we know — it’s what we are willing to learn that makes great teachers.”
Another said, “Make the custodian your friend. And if you are an elementary teacher, no glitter. Ever.”
One said, “Keep a bad day file. Put every happy note, hand-drawn picture, good observation, class picture, fun photo in there. Read it on those days when you wonder why.”
One began by saying, “Smile.” And the advice just kept coming:
“Your student has a life outside of the classroom—welcome it in. In my 24 years of teaching, I have found that what parents really want is to hear how much you like and value their child.”
“See the world. Many of your students will only see the world through your eyes.”
“Your students will remember your heart more than irrelevant information in a textbook.”
“Make sure you know the difference between the fire drill bell and the tornado drill bell — or resign yourself to red slippers in your mailbox and ‘Dorothy’ as a nickname.”
“Love them, every one of them, unconditionally. Kids won’t remember that you taught them factoring polynomials, spelling, or how to conjugate verbs. They remember how you made them feel.”
And I’ll leave you with the comments of a trusted friend in my inner circle. She said:
“If I can tell new teachers one thing, it would be this — be fierce. The profession might not immediately strike young people as one that requires ferocity, but it does.
It takes “fierce” to battle your own self-doubt when you’re the only one who seems to know that “good enough” is just not good enough for your students. Excellence is what you’re after, and you’re not going to let anything or anyone stand between your students and excellence. Bring “fierce” to the table every time.
You’re going to need it.
Be gentle, kind and caring with your students. But be fierce about their education.”
As you write your own chapter, you’re becoming part of a bigger story — the story of our country, our children, and our future. Believe in yourself. You’ve had a great education and preparation for a great career. Believe in your students. They will teach you everything you need to know about what being a good teacher means.
And above all, be fierce in everything that you do. You are our best hope for the next generation. You can help students learn right from wrong and in doing so right the wrongs that still remain in our world.”
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