Keynote Speech

Thank you, President Karbhari, Dean Doughty, Dr. Smith and other members of the faculty, staff and graduates. It is an honor to be here today to help inaugurate this tradition of a pinning ceremony for graduates of the College Education here at The University of Texas at Arlington.

As I have glanced around the room, I have been made aware of the fact that I have now reached the point in life where I am old enough to be a grandfather to far too many of you. I come to that conclusion despite my best efforts to consider otherwise. My personal experience with education began with Miss Step’s first grade classroom in 1961. It was an interesting year in our country. NASA sent a chimpanzee named Ham into space, and a few months later, Alan Shepherd followed him, becoming the first American in space. John Kennedy was inaugurated as president of the United States, and he asked us to consider not what our country could do for us, but what we could do for our country. Later that year, he created the Peace Corps.

Now, lest you think that I am going to walk you through the next 55 years or so, allow me to put that to rest. It is important for you to understand the point of origin for what I am about to say about education and what it means to me to be a teacher. Just as our country has changed since 1961, so has education and the task of teaching.

I was brought up on the notion that school was about “the three Rs: ” Reading, ‘Riting, and “Rithmetic”. I want to submit to you this afternoon that while education is, still about three Rs, the specifics of that description may need to change. You will find, as the first years of your teaching careers unfold, that teaching is far more about reflection, relationships, and retooling.

Not surprisingly, we know a lot more today about the way our brains learn than we did when I began teaching in 1995. Reflection and metacognition play dramatically large roles in the way our students learn, and I dare say, allowing time in the learning process for reflection is central to a student’s ability to absorb what we want him or her to learn.

Your time as an educator will be filled for you by others and measured out in six-week portions for the remainder of your careers. You will often be told what to teach, how to teach it, and given a testing schedule that lets you know the date by which you must have taught it. The clock. Never. Stops. Ticking. You must remember to slow down and reflect, and to allow your students to do the same. In his blog post “The Cognitive Science Behind Learning”, Clark Quinn suggests that “meaningful” practice and time in between practices to reflect on both the failures and successes improves cognitive function in learning.

There is a popular meme making the rounds on social media that states, “You can’t do the Blooms stuff until you do the Mazlow’s stuff.” It is impossible to underestimate the value of trust in the learning environment. That trust is enabled by relationships that you have with your students. We are told that all students must pass standardized assessments, but the playing field is not level and life is not fair.

An equitable opportunity for education will be one of the criteria by which the future will judge our society. Dystopian literature and post-apocalyptic movies suggest there will come a time when bottled water and canned food are valued most among other possessions. For some of my students, the apocalypse is now. Domestic violence and poverty are two of the greatest barriers to learning that I know. Rita Pierson, a 40-year veteran of teaching is widely known for her TED talk in which she said, “Every child deserves a champion: an adult who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists they become the best they can possibly be.” That is only made possible by building relationships.

From a more scholarly point of view, Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Jacqueline Zeller writes, “Often, we discuss social and emotional development very distinctly from academic growth. However, these ideas are very much intertwined. When children feel more secure at school, they are more prepared to learn. Children who feel this level of security are also generally more open to share how their lives outside of school are connected with ideas introduced in their classrooms. Educators have noted that these personal anecdotes helpchildren build the foundations for literacy.” That all begins with relationships.

The role of the classroom teacher is evolving…quickly. Many of the finer points of what you have learned in the course of your degree will be challenged by the change happening in the trenches of education reform. Cultivating the ability to continue learning, retooling, if you will, for effectiveness as a teacher is essential to your professional credibility as an educator. Our students — regardless of the grade level — have the tools and the ability to teach themselves a great deal of what used to be the exclusive the personal purview of the professional classroom teacher. The most memorable learning moments in my classroom happen, however, when I am less the lecturer who has all of the answers and more the mentor/coach, the lead learner in my classroom — a facilitator of learning experiences that are as varied as the makeup of my class roster.

As professionals, we cannot wait for our campus administrators, district supervisors or the Texas Education Agency to tell us what we need to learn in order to stay current in our practice and pedagogy. We live in a world where — like our students — we can learn anywhere, anytime, from the best practitioners that our profession has to offer. UTA’s New Teacher Blog is an excellent example of the portability of professional development. It has been my privilege to contribute to that blog, and I understand the text of what I am sharing with you today will be published there following graduation.

Let me tell you something else I’ve experienced: the negative teachers in our profession are not on Twitter, but the positive ones help dominate this social media platform as a point of professional learning.

I became a teacher for some of the same reasons as you: summers off, free pizza and donuts, and the chance to earn free jeans passes. And let’s not forget spring break. No, I became a public school teacher because of a deeply ingrained ethical conviction that I owed something to my community that as a Christian I was bound to give.

You should know that teaching is my second career — one that has embraced me almost as much as I have embraced it. I have been blessed with some incredible peers and mentors over the past 20+ plus years. In the fall of 1995,

I stood in the high school gym at C.E. Byrd High School in Shreveport, Louisiana, amid the pandemonium of my first high school pre-football game pep rally. I was a 40-year-old first year teacher. Since that time I have felt the sadness of losing students to drive-by shootings, the panic of having an entire classroom of 15-year-olds ridicule me, and the discouragement of knowing that some students will not be successful, no matter what I do. I have also lived to teach seventh grade English to all four siblings from the same family, and I have known the thrill of watching a former student overcome parental abandonment and homeless to receive a full ride college scholarship. You have chosen a career that is not always easy, but one that will reward you in wonderfully unexpected ways.

I do not remember who won that football game 22 years ago, but I do remember what I said to a fellow teacher standing next to me at that pep rally. It is as true for me today as it was then. “I can’t believe they are going to pay me to do this.” Welcome to the wonderful world of professional education. Thank you for allowing me to share the joys of teaching with you this afternoon, and welcome to the family.