Skip to main content

Education, A Sacred Profession

The prepared remarks of Dean Bridget Long for Commencement 2022

Good afternoon, everyone! My name is Bridget Terry Long, and I am proud to be the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Welcome graduates, colleagues, family and friends.  Congratulations to you all!

I know many people have helped the graduates arrive at this special moment — parents and other caregivers, partners, friends, and others are cheering you on today, as they have throughout your time as a student. For that reason, I’d like to ask all of the graduates to stand, turn toward the audience, and give a round of applause to thank those who helped you on this journey. 

And I notice that many of the graduates have brought their children. I invite all the children here to comment on today’s ceremony in whatever way they see fit.  You will help make this place feel alive as we look towards the future.

I would also like to thank all of the staff who have worked tirelessly throughout the year to help us all, and who have worked especially hard to make graduation special for you.  They deserve a huge round of applause. 
Last but not least, I would like to thank the faculty, who have served not only as teachers and colleagues but also as mentors and friends. 

Land Acknowledgement

Before we get too far along, I’d like to recognize those who came before us in the space that we share today. Let us all acknowledge that the land on which many of our homes, schools, and places of work sit are the ancestral lands of Indigenous peoples. The land we gather on today is the traditional territory of the Massachusett people. Let us also recognize the enslaved individuals who helped to build Harvard University and other colleges and universities across this country and the world.

We take a moment to honor those before us, understanding the role these souls and communities played in creating and funding educational institutions that were not intended to serve them and did not regard the dignity of their humanity.

Acknowledging our history is an important step in combating the erasure of the important contributions, sacrifices, and stories of those before us, and it is a step towards ensuring a culture of awareness, respect, and accountability within our community.

“The Crucial Role of Educators Right Now”

In a moment, you will receive your diplomas, but first I’d like to share a few thoughts as you look forward to your next chapter.

In preparing for our first in-person Commencement ceremony in three years, I have been so excited to resurrect old traditions and to create a few new ones as we come together for this joyous moment. I look forward to the future with great anticipation of the good you will do in the world and have considered many possible things I might say as we send you off. However, during the past several months, I must confess that there have also been times when I feel like there is a storm cloud threatening to upend my optimistic outlook. And I don’t think that I’m alone — whether it be:

  • constant reminders of social injustice and growing attacks on fundamental human rights; 
  • a resurgence of hate that has culminated into outright acts of murder just because of the color of a person’s skin; 
  • declining faith in many of our time-honored institutions that were originally formed to protect the ideals of democracy and justice; 
  • and a war that is increasingly raising the stakes for the entire world.

I originally wrote this speech days ago, but I have to say that the last week has only reiterated that I picked the right message. And that’s because of Tuesday, when we learned about the devastating loss of 19 elementary school students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas. Innocent children about to finish their school year; second, third, and fourth graders experiencing the joy of childhood when their lives were cut short. And we lost two amazing teachers, Irma Garcia and Eva Mireles. They died doing the most noble thing I can imagine: protecting their students.

Please take a moment not only to honor the victims, but I also want you to consider the cost of doing nothing. If our systems and laws truly valued all lives, then perhaps the 20 Sandy Hook first graders murdered on December 14, 2012, would be in high school right now and looking forward to their own graduations in a couple of years.

The tragedy in Uvalde this week only added to the sadness, anger, and despair I feel just looking at the news. And it is the reason why many of our students chose to raise a black card during the morning exercises in Harvard Yard. We grieve together. 

Yes, it’s a tough time.

And the struggle feels especially acute because we all carry with us the scars from the past two-plus years a time of uncertainty, disappointment, and sadness, caused by a virus that forced us to shut down our way of life, robbed us of precious time, and stole from us the lives of so many of our loved ones.  

Unfortunately, the fact that so many of us sit in masks today is a testament to the fact that COVID is still with us. And it is increasingly clear that we will spend years dealing with the repercussions of the pandemic, which disproportionally struck communities that were already marginalized.

Ok, I know. This is supposed to be an uplifting Commencement speech, and I will get to that part in a moment. But first it’s important to acknowledge the reality of what we all face. It’s OK to feel the sadness, to feel weary. But we must also realize that we’re at an important moment — a moment in which we all have a choice to make. Each and every one of us.  

Right now, so many things feel out of control, which means this is the exact time for us to consider: What do we want this world to be?  What are we going to contribute to build a better future? 

Graduates, you need to take an active role in shaping what happens, though as you look ahead to carve out your next chapter, it is understandable if this task feels a little daunting. And that’s where the good news comes in: you could not be in a better position because you chose education. To borrow a line from one of my favorite films, “You chose wisely.” 

We Are Educators

We are educators. And I mean the word “educators” in the broadest sense possible. You are now teachers, researchers, policymakers, counselors, administrators, nonprofit leaders, entrepreneurs, learning designers, innovators, and philanthropists. You are people who care about how we will grow and thrive — as individuals, as communities, as a world.  

You came to HGSE and are here today because of your passion for improving education, and there are myriad ways you will do this: 

  • from working inside of schools or colleges to leading non-profit organizations and community initiatives; 
  • from focusing on our youngest learners to supporting the needs of adults; 
  • from concentrating on classroom activities to designing the policies of a state or country.  

You — let me rephrase that — we represent the entire education ecosystem, and together that is an impressive force for good.

And as you have grown as educators, you have demonstrated incredible resilience. You weathered the storm of unexpected COVID surges, new variants, and changing protocols that required us all to continually adapt our practices and policies. You experienced disruptions to your research, residency programs, and internships at schools, colleges, and nonprofits when they went into lockdown and best-laid plans had to be cast aside. And yet, in the midst of this unprecedented turmoil, you stood up to help fellow learners and educators. For example, when substitute teachers were needed by our local school districts, you answered the call with vigor. 

You also accomplished many “firsts,” as the first cohorts to experience our new master’s programs and new approaches to learning. You have helped set HGSE on an exciting path for how we will continue to train and support future students who aspire to make their mark in education.

We are educators, and there is nothing more powerful.  

And to answer the question I posed earlier — about what we are going to contribute to build a better future — I can tell you that there is so much we can accomplish. To encourage you and bolster your efforts as you look ahead, I’d like to share several observations about the crucial role of educators and education, especially right now.

Education is Foundational

First, let us recognize that education is foundational.  

To quote Kofi Annan, former Secretary-General of the United Nations and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, “Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.”

The early weeks of the lockdown caused by COVID could not have made clearer just how crucial educators and our education systems are. Educators not only stimulate minds; they also support the social, emotional, and physical growth of learners. Our schools, colleges, and early childcare centers provide more than just instruction; they provide regular access to food, health care, and safety. And community-based organizations are an essential part of the systems that support and protect students, families, and communities. 

One of my greatest wishes after this pandemic is that people will not forget just how essential our educational systems are and invest accordingly.

I found this quote, which I adapted slightly to summarize just how fundamental our roles as educators are: “Education is the one profession that creates all other professions.” Let me repeat that so that my words might reach all the other schools at Harvard: “Education is the one profession that creates all other professions.”

I almost feel like this is a “mic drop” moment, and we could just end things here, but alas, we have a few more things to discuss.

Education is an Expression of Hope

My second observation is that education is an expression of hope. In fact, to quote Colleen Wilcox, a former superintendent: “Teaching is the greatest act of optimism.” You have to believe that good things are possible to be an educator.  

Stated another way, education is an investment in the future with the belief that our efforts will result in the betterment of a learner, a group, a community, or even a country.  

And right now, the world is in desperate need of the hope and optimism that education can provide. I’d like to read part of a poem that Steve Seidel who is retiring this year after 41 years on the HGSE faculty — generously shared with me. The poem is by Vaclav Havel, a playwright and former dissident who served both as the last president of Czechoslovakia up until 1992 and the first president of the new Czech Republic when it was established in 1993. 

The part of Havel’s poem that really resonated with me is as follows:

Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy  
when things are going well,  
or the willingness to invest in enterprises 
that are obviously headed for early success,  
but rather an ability to work for something to succeed. 

It is that last line, “an ability to work for something to succeed” that caught my eye.  That is what we do as educators: support learners to succeed by guiding them, creating tools, and leading the systems that will inspire their achievement. And HGSE has stood as a leader in advancing a message of hope. It was people here who were courageous enough and bold enough to question the deeply held assumption that only some students could learn.  
Instead, we start from the premise that all students can learn — and frankly put, “all means ALL,” and our community has demonstrated in hundreds of ways how success is possible regardless of background, ability, or context. 

Yes, as educators, we provide hope for the world.

Education is about Connection 

But what is education? Is it just a bunch of content and facts?  

No, as this quote sums up: “It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated.”  

Education is more than just the transmission of information; it is about connecting the dots between pieces of information — providing the context we need to distill information in this complex world, to assess its truthfulness, and to put it into action for the betterment of society. And perhaps more importantly, education is about connecting us to each other. Surely the last two years have taught us not to take human connection for granted. And so my third point is: education is about connection.

In the early days of COVID-19, as we realized at HGSE that “business as usual” was just not going to be possible, we chose to develop and advance an innovative model of remote learning. And central to that commitment was maintaining — or in fact, bolstering — opportunities for connection.  

With many of you spread all around the world, and with the Delta variant wreaking havoc on our plans to return to on-campus activity last fall, our focus has been on creating as many opportunities for connection as possible — connection to faculty and staff, connection between classmates, and connection to the broader world many of us seek to serve.  

Connection or the lack thereof is not a matter of whether you are face to face or online. It is about being deliberate. And Aaliyah El-Amin, the winner of this year’s Morningstar Family Teaching Award, is an incredible example of what is possible.  

To quote her students: “Dr. El-Amin has created [one of] the best learning environments I have ever experienced. She developed it with thoughtfulness, academic rigor, kindness, genuine community, and love for her students.”

Another wrote: “She provided guidance with authentic agency in our learning and built trust within our classroom. She helped me develop confidence in my own identity, which helped me to be a better student, peer, and support to my community.”

And this perhaps sums up the connection Aaliyah was able to foster best: “I never felt like I was being ‘taught at.’ I felt as though I was ‘learning alongside’ Dr. El-Amin. She has the ability to teach us and also express her longing to continue learning from our experiences and perspectives as well.”

Thank you, Aaliyah, and thank you to the entire HGSE faculty and staff colleagues who were committed and creative in finding ways to build connection, regardless of the circumstance. 

Education is Limitless

As a fourth observation, let me also point out that education is limitless, and the impact we can have as educators is boundless. 

To paraphrase Henry Adams, a 19th-century American historian and descendant from two presidents: Teachers affect eternity: they can never tell where their influence stops.

Yes, the impact of a skilled educator is limitless. And this is what I tell people about HGSE: an investment in our students is not just an investment in one individual; it is an investment in all of the learners and families and communities that will be touched by the work we do — as we lead, counsel, teach, administer, research, design, and invent the content, tools, and supports that will touch generations to come.

As our graduates, you are our gift to the world. And I am proud of the many ways the HGSE community has committed to supporting and living the ideals of what education can and should be. And that message about our impact has resonated with the wider world.  

I am so proud to share that this year we have raised nearly $73 million for financial aid for HGSE students, including the largest gift in our history from two Harvard Business School alumni and the largest gift ever from one of our own alums. We were able to do this by sharing the work we as educators are doing and the impact we are having, which compounds every year.

And you, the class of 2022, have also chosen to pay it forward with your class gift to support financial aid. You have successfully raised the largest gift ever, and we are thankful.  Your generosity will live on in limitless ways as we support yet another cohort of aspiring educators.

Education is a Sacred Profession

This brings me to my fifth and final observation. I’d like to return to the Henry Adams quote I just used to illustrate how the effects of education can be boundless. The quote comes from a book he published in 1918 that described the myriad of challenges Adams faced as an assistant professor at Harvard. The book is a bit of a cautionary tale, with Adams sharing his fears that a poor education was going to negatively affect students their whole lives.  

This is all to say that education can be an amazing thing, but not all spaces live up to the ideals I have discussed today. We can’t just pretend that society is fully meeting the goals of providing a high-quality education to all.

There are persistent inequities and stubborn gaps in opportunity and success at all levels — from the lack of access to high-quality early childhood education; to segregation and insufficient supports and rigor in K–12 classrooms; to uneven graduation rates and looming debt in higher education. Stated another way, strong, positive educational experiences are not automatic or inevitable. They are not the result of happenstance.  

To fulfill the potential of being a source of progress, hope, and connection takes deliberate thought and action. They occur because of you and because of people like you. What we do as educators, is a craft — a gift.  

It can be empowering. It can be the keys to progress and success. But it must not be taken lightly. And that is my fifth point: The profession you are a part of is important and sacred.  

Embrace your roles as an educators in whatever form that takes. 

We are an important backbone for our communities, leaders pushing to help learners of all ages reach their potential. We are inventors, analysts, writers, coaches, and artists who use ingenuity, creativity, and collaboration to create new experiences and discover new ways of advancing learning. We support the vulnerable and help the powerless find their voice, and we foster learning between those who might look differently, speak differently, and worship differently but who nonetheless find commonality in a myriad of ways perhaps not obvious to the eye. And we press the world to confront uncomfortable histories and radical ideas with the goal of not repeating the past and instead expanding horizons to create “men and women who are capable of doing new things,” as Piaget wrote about the goal of education.

We are educators, and we help present and future generations build towards something better. 

And we do so even when things are not perfect and easy.  As affirmed by Barbara Colorose, a former nun: “If kids come to us from strong, healthy, functioning families, it makes our job easier. If they do not come to us from strong, healthy, functioning families, it makes our job more important.”

This sacred profession that you are a part of could not be more important.  

A Call to Action

As you look forward, be proud of the decision you made to be an educator. When the storm clouds are looming with the challenges facing this world, each and every one of you fuels my optimism. 

As L.R. Knost wrote: “The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.” And your role as an educator could not be more significant than it is right now. 

As one of my favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston, wrote: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” This is a year we can provide answers.

One question, as we look to the future, is are we seeking to return to “normal”? No, that is not the goal. The last two years brought new light to long-existing inequities in our education systems. The gaps and persistent inequities we see are certainly not new, and so we need to push for far more than returning to “normal.”

And as illustrated in recent work by Harvard faculty, we have a great deal of work to do — not only academically but in terms of wellness and mental health.  

We are entering a period of recovery, when students of all ages need our best, as do our education colleagues and partners spread throughout the world.  

Graduates, you can make a real and lasting difference. Why? Because you are educators, an important and sacred profession. What you do is foundational. You provide hope.  You build connection. And the effects of what you do are limitless.  

We send you out into a world that needs you desperately. And you will not be alone. You will always be a part of HGSE, a community of educators.

Good luck, and Congratulations! 

Once again, let’s applaud the 2022 graduating class of the Harvard Graduate School of Education!


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles