Never Rest: Closing Remarks for Graduation 2014

Never Rest: Closing Remarks for Graduation 2014

By Mike Stevenson

MSEd alumnus Mike Stevenson gave the closing remarks at this year's graduation ceremony on August 2, 2014. Here is his message to his fellow graduates.

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There is really northing I can say today that you don’t already know. We’ve done this together – lesson planning, leader development, job applications, - action research…? - and, of course, reflection. We’ve shared stories of success and commiserated with one another over our struggles.

Because of this, I know that every person here has an appreciation for the significance of what we are about to do: for some, you are entering the teaching profession for the first time, full of idealism and perhaps just a hint of naivety. For others, you are returning to your schools ready to refine your practice and guide your fellow teachers, not to mention your eager students.

What, then, can I say to you? I’m just some guy with microphone. I asked this very question to Dave Renz, MSED’s advisor emeritus. In Dave’s typical, succinct fashion, he told me, “It doesn’t have to be perfect, Mike. Just make sure you go easy on the buzzwords.”

Education loves a good buzzword. Differentiation, social-emotional learning, multiple intelligences – these are the buzzwords that define our craft, or, at least they are until we come up with a brand new set to replace them. And yet, the words themselves are irrelevant.  Rather, it is what they represent. There is a common thread that permeates each buzzword, an etymological kinship that speaks to the very heart of education and what we stand for as teachers.

As teachers, we are always trying to get better.

Every buzzword we coin, every concept we perfect, every method we practice – it is all in the service of trying to get better as teachers and as human beings. To be clear, I am not saying that we are failing and must improve; the collection of outstanding elementary teachers, secondary teachers, and teacher leaders sitting here today speaks to incredible array of talent that infuses school districts every single year. Rather, it is that we can never rest. It is often said that education is not a sprint, but a marathon. I believe it is neither one; instead, it is a road without end that we commit ourselves to traveling because we believe in the journey.

No doubt you are all now on the edges of your seats, waiting for this newly licensed teacher to tell you how to get better. Indulge me then, if you will, as I take advice from the many educators in this program who have helped light my path, and present it as my own.

As teachers, we get better through reflection. Now, before you accuse me of drinking the MS ED kool-aid, consider this: every single one of us has a lesson that haunts us. Maybe the instruction resulted in mass confusion, and you had that out-of-body experience where you can literally see yourself crashing and burning right in front of the kids. Or perhaps it was an assessment, the results of which made you look in the mirror and say to yourself, “Am I really such a bad teacher?” And yet, here you are, preparing to enter the classroom as a new teacher or returning as a veteran leader, all the while telling yourself that you will make damn sure that specific instance never happens again. You will differentiate for learner level, scaffold the instruction – there are those buzzwords again – and put students in groups of four rather than pairs. And perhaps it will be better… but it might not. Either way, you will spend the rest of your days as a teacher figuring out how to make that lesson better. As teachers, we reflect, and it makes us better.

But we aren’t just teachers; we’re mentors, parents, friends, and counselors. We wear so many hats in the classroom because we exist to give each student what he or she needs in order to learn. We try to get better because of our relentless and uncompromising commitment to our students.

This is a tough time to teach in Chicago. 85% of CPS students receive free or reduced lunch. Those on the South and West Sides bear witness daily to the gun violence that wracks our city each day. Our students need so much more from us than multiplication tables and lessons on the American Revolution. They need an advocate. As teachers, we advocate for our students and it makes us better.

This is a heavy burden that we have chosen to assume. A quick story: when I graduated from infantry officer training as a young Lieutenant, our graduation speaker quoted General Norman Schwarzkopf in his closing remarks. He said, “the mothers and fathers of America will give you their sons and daughters…with the confidence that you will not needlessly waste their lives. And you dare not. That is the burden the mantle of leadership places upon you. It is an awesome responsibility. You cannot fail. You dare not fail.”

Certainly, teaching is not the military, yet we are similarly entrusted with he welfare of future generations, and we try every day to get better, thereby ensuring that we will never fail. Not because we are doing something wrong, but because getting better is what we do right. We make our students better learners, citizens, and human beings. We make our communities better with every student we send to the next grade. And we make ourselves better with every day we spend in the classroom teaching our children. It is an awesome responsibility, but I know that every teacher here today will never yield, never compromise, and never stop trying to be better. Our students deserve that much. They deserve you. Thank you.

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