Skip to main content

A Love Letter to Educators

Bridget Terry Long delivers Commencement address

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 cheering you on today. Graduates, please take a moment to stand and honor those who helped you reach this incredible milestone.

And I notice there are many young children in the audience. I invite 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 next generation.

I would also like to thank the staff who have worked especially hard to make this graduation special. They deserve a huge round of applause. Finally, I would like to thank the faculty, who have served not only as teachers and colleagues but also as mentors and friends.  

As we start, I’d like to first recognize those who came before us in this place. Harvard University is located on the traditional and ancestral land of the Massachusett, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. We pay respect to the people of the Massachusett Tribe, past and present, and honor the land itself which remains sacred to the Massachusett People.

Let us also acknowledge Harvard’s entanglements with slavery. We take a moment to honor the enslaved women, men, and children who helped to build Harvard University and other educational institutions that were not intended to serve them and did not respect the dignity of their humanity.

Acknowledging our history is an important and powerful way to combat the erasure of the important contributions, sacrifices, and stories of those who came before us. Let us recognize the privileges we enjoy today as a legacy of those who were not given a choice.

Commencement is an important moment to recognize and celebrate the achievements of our graduates.

I want to acknowledge that we celebrate during a time of violence. Around the world and close to home, there is uncertainty, anger, and perpetual reminders of how quickly some can forget our shared humanity and the respect and dignity we all deserve.

At HGSE, it is our mission to improve the lives of people around the world through education. As I told my first cohort of students as dean years ago, they did not come to HGSE just to get an education for themselves — it was to also improve the lives of those who can’t be here. As such, Commencement may include expressions of concern and support for those not here. We are also a community that is committed to respecting the rights, differences, and dignity of others.

Let us enter this moment fully, knowing that if we do not celebrate the good, then why bother taking a stand against the bad? It is because we have experienced moments of joy that we work so hard to make sure others do as well. And today, we take a moment to celebrate the many wonderful things that are possible when dedicated people apply their time and talents to improving the world through education.

To our graduates, your work will continue in the months, and years ahead, but I hope today fills you with happiness, friendship, and encouragement to help carry you through the days ahead.

I am so proud as I look at our amazing graduates. Congratulations! You joined us from all over the world — some of you are just starting your careers while others were already seasoned professionals. I especially want to recognize that some of you were the first member in your family to earn ANY college degree and now you find yourself graduating from Harvard. Congratulations!  

In a moment, we will award you with your diplomas, but first, I’d like to share a few thoughts as you look forward to your next chapter. As you know, this is my last Commencement as Dean of HGSE, and I want to take the opportunity to reflect on all this community has done together. The last six years have only reinforced my belief in the incredible things possible here. 

  • We completed a multi-year process to redesign our master’s degree program, resulting in the creation of Foundations and new pathways of study to prepare students for a range of impactful roles. 
  • We weathered the COVID pandemic and found new ways to connect, invest in our skills and our community, and support students.  
  • We opened our doors to many new students by creating an exemplary online master’s degree program.  
  • We enhanced our external engagement with convenings on critical topics, such as:
    • Education recovery after the pandemic
    • Polarization in education
    • Climate change and the role of education and education leaders
    • Mental health, and
    • Elite admissions practices
  • And we raised over $83 million in financial aid so that HGSE can welcome and support many more students regardless of their ability to pay.

HGSE is a shining example of the power of education, but what about the people who make the magic of education happen? The power of education is only possible because of people, and so, I decided long ago that my final address as Dean of HGSE would be an expression of love and admiration to the amazing individuals here as well as those working in earnest in every corner of the globe to improve the world through education.

This is my love letter to educators.

Let me first be clear that I am using the word “educator” in the broadest way possible. Of course, I’m referring to the teachers, mentors, coaches, counselors, and leaders in education who directly affect learning, but I also am including those who indirectly create the conditions and supports necessary for learning. I want to especially recognize our incredible HGSE staff colleagues who build, maintain, and provide the supports and structures that enable students and this entire community to do their best work.

Graduates, you will help to shape the educational journeys of learners of all ages as you apply what you’ve learned here at HGSE. You have also been educators to each other.  That is part of the magic — the way fellow students expand our learning and growth by exposing us to new ideas and helping us sharpen our own thoughts, even though we don’t always agree.

And I bet there are a number of educators in the audience — like so many of our graduates, I am the child of a teacher. What I feel today and have felt many times during my tenure as Dean is gratitude — to my colleagues, to our amazing students, and to the educators who made me who I am today. And so these remarks are an expression of my appreciation and gratitude to educators — the people who make the power of education real.

One of the rewarding things about my job is the incredible educators I get to meet. Some are internationally known leaders in education. Even a muppet can be an educator, which we recognized a few years ago when we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Sesame Street, which started in collaboration with researchers at HGSE. But what sticks with me the most are the education professionals who are doing amazing things in their specific communities.

I loved chatting with Michael Hester, then-superintendent of the Batesville School District in Arkansas.  He spearheaded a program to install solar panels at schools, and this generated enough revenue to fund salary increases for district teachers. I was so impressed hearing about 20 years of education reform in Chicago from two former Chicago Public School CEOs, Arne Duncan and Janice Jackson, and the current CEO Pedro Martinez.

And meeting Alexander McLean, Founder and CEO of Justice Defenders, was definitely a highlight. His organization works in Kenya, Uganda and The Gambia to train incarcerated men and women to become paralegals. These paralegals have provided free legal services to more than 100,000 incarcerated people, and they have facilitated the release of over 30,000 clients. Impressive indeed.

But you don’t have to look any further than the HGSE community to see examples of outstanding educators. Each year we recognize one faculty member with the Morningstar Family Teaching Award for excellence in teaching and advising and evidence of a caring, respectful, and enthusiastic commitment to students.

This year’s winner is David Dockterman. With an impressive 23 nominations, his students wrote about his deep commitment, transformative teaching, and his kindness, compassion, and ability to make students feel seen and heard. Congratulations to Dock for this well-deserved honor.

Dock is not alone in his pursuit to be an outstanding educator. One of my favorite memories from the past several years is when I was able to award the Morningstar Family Teaching Award to the entire HGSE Faculty, something that had never been done before. We had just lived through the monumental task of pivoting to a completely online year, revamping the curriculum, learning new ways of teaching, and innovating in how we supported students regardless of their geographic location. In their many, many nomination letters, students wrote how faculty members were “the embodiment of dynamic learning in a virtual setting” and how they “empowered [students] to have a voice in classroom discussions.” The HGSE faculty and staff exemplify what it means to be amazing educators.

I’ve given you a number of examples of outstanding educators, but what do they have in common?

A great deal has been written about the qualities of a good educator. Among them are:

  • Patience and strong communication skills
  • Adaptability and creativity
  • Empathy, and subject matter expertise.

However, this simple list is insufficient, and so I’d like to add several things I’ve observed during my time as Dean about the other qualities outstanding educators share. The first thing we need to recognize is that good teaching and providing effective supports is a craft — one requiring expertise, skill, careful listening, and adaptation.

Let’s go back a bit. A little known secret is that most PhD programs don’t teach you how to teach. It’s all about research and publishing, especially in Economics Departments. But when I applied for the job as assistant professor here at HGSE, I started to get questions about my pedagogical approach and my teaching philosophy.

So what did I do when I didn’t know the answers?  I called my Mother. She was a teacher, and I implored her to give me pointers on how the magic is made. It was with my Mother’s guidance I relied upon as I started my time at HGSE, but I recognized the need to invest in honing my craft. I observed the teaching of my more senior colleagues and sought regular feedback and suggestions. Thankfully, it all worked out.

To be clear, once I got the job and explained to my Mother what my teaching load and service demands would be as a college professor, she was not at all impressed. You see, she had been a public school teacher for 25 years in struggling, urban high schools, and she often taught the students with behavioral issues who were not considered to be on the “college track.” So clearly, I was not going to convince my Mother about the stress and strain of being a college instructor. It didn’t matter when I tried to explain that I didn’t simply teach from a textbook but instead had to produce much of the knowledge I intended to teach.

I do have to commend K-12 teachers. And community college instructors. And professors who serve the bulk of our college students without the aid of numerous, talented teaching fellows, support from the Offices of Academic Affairs and Student Services, and the gift of time to plan each class. And yet, what is common among the best educators is their recognition that teaching is a craft, and they lean into the work because it is also incredibly rewarding. As John Steinbeck wrote: “Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.” That magic we see in the best of education settings does not occur by happenstance, but because the best educators recognize the expertise and experience critical to serving our students.

A second observation I’ve made is that many of us, as educators, are moved by our deep commitment to our students. It is a mission driven by hope. As I said at a previous Commencement speech, education is an expression of hope. You have to believe that good things are possible to be an educator. We are propelled by the idea that education is an investment in the future with the belief that our efforts will result in improving the circumstances of a learner, a community, or even a country.  

I want to briefly recognize my father, who provided me with unwavering support and was perhaps the greatest advocate for the importance of education. I suspect many of you had someone similar in your lives who planted a seed about the transformational impact of education, not just for our own lives but for the lives of many.

Our mission-focused work as educators results in us not only hoping for a better future but being a crucial part of shaping that future. We are on the front lines of change as well as emerging challenges.

Take for example efforts to restrict information, spread misinformation, and limit what students can learn. This approach harms all students and fails to recognize that great teachers “stimulate, provoke, and engage” students with the issues of our complex world. If we do not prepare students for the realities and diversity of the world and impress upon them the innate dignity and respect deserved by every single person, then the world will end up not only with ignorance, but with hate.

As educators, it is our mission to create a better world that keeps so many of us focused. As you look ahead, I encourage you to lean into this distinct aspect of being an educator. You’ve demonstrated time and time again your dedication to the mission of improving education, from your initial decision to apply and attend, to your active pursuits while here as students, to your intentions to do good work in the months and years ahead.

Because of our strong sense of purpose, my third point about educators is that we persevere.  We don’t give up. It was only a few years ago that we came together to build an exciting new chapter that re-envisioned what learning could look like and how we would continue to function as a community during the COVID-19 pandemic. As I noted before, the faculty and staff did the impossible that year, pivoting to remote education, connection, and support. The summer of 2020, I sent the following email to the HGSE community: “increasingly, there is evidence that the strategic decision to pursue remote learning has now become an opportunity to explore, experiment, and learn how to not only continue what makes HGSE great but to also chart a new vision of what is possible.” Years later, I am still filled with pride at what this community of educators did. That year created new opportunities, resulting in the establishment of our online master’s program in education leadership. I am so proud to award degrees to the first cohort of graduates this year.

I do think it’s worth noting that the Ed School was the only school at Harvard that faced the pandemic not with diminished expectations and compromise, but instead, with courage, heart, and an exciting sense of possibility. We joined together to not only serve our students but also to help to support students, families, educators, and communities around the world.

So to review, educators embark on becoming masters of a craft, we have a special sense of purpose, and we don’t give up or easily get deterred. My fourth observation is that outstanding educators recognize the potential in students that others do not see. I found a quote by an educator named José Vilson that illustrates my point. He wrote: “Most of my work as a math teacher isn't even math. It's helping students believe that they can do math." Sometimes the greatest impact we can have is to help students believe the amazing things they are capable of doing.

I have also benefitted greatly from people who saw things in me that I was reluctant to believe. My decision to take the leap to become Dean is one example. I was uncertain and intimidated by the possibility, but a fellow educator made a world of difference in encouraging me. She had been a teacher, principal, and superintendent of an area school district. She was also in the midst of a leadership transition, taking a new and very different role. When I expressed worry that perhaps I wasn’t cut out to be Dean, she said something that has stuck with me for all these years: “Leadership can look many ways.  Make the job your own.” And that was exactly what I needed to hear.

Months later I would become the first African-American woman to serve as Dean of HGSE.  At the reception of my announcement as Dean, I told the audience: “I join the growing ranks of leaders who don't fit the traditional mold reflected by so many of the portraits around this institution, by race or by gender, and I know our examples will encourage many of you who hear my voice today to make your own marks. Don’t ever forget that we are all capable of so much.” Now, years later, I hope that I have lived up to my promise to encourage others to take their own leaps forward.  To each person here, consider that you are capable of more than you know. And as educators, be sure to emphasize the potential in others that society may refuse to see. 

I started my list of amazing things about educators with a story about my Mother, and I want to complete my list by returning to her example. HGSE has been an incredible place to show me what outstanding educators can do, but as I think about the most amazing educator I’ve known, it is my Mother, Eleanor Terry.

Of course, I realized long ago just how amazing my Mother is and how blessed I am to be her daughter.

There are a million little things, and I am so thankful for the many opportunities I had to tell her and show her my love and adoration. You see, in January, a little over four months ago, my mother passed away from Alzheimer's. Even though we had been contending with the disease for several year, it was still a shock. I’d be lying if I said my grief did not sometimes overwhelm me, but I don’t want this to be a moment of sorrow. Instead, the last few months, and really the last several years, have been a time when my appreciation for all that she has given me, done for me, and shared with me has become clear.

When I was asked to write her obituary, I struggled with how to summarize her life. Ultimately, this is what I wrote: Eleanor loved fiercely and unconditionally, was generous in her support, and lifted those around her, often seeing the potential in people that others missed. We fondly remember her amazing storytelling, ready laugh and jokester spirit, and the fear she could instill in bullies despite her tiny frame.

Simply put, she was a living example of the best I have seen in others — the many educators I’ve had the honor of working with, learning from, and being a collaborator with.

Let’s review my list of attributes of the most amazing educators. I already told you how my Mother was the first person to share with me the craft of teaching. She exemplified a sense of purpose and demonstrated the hope she had in others with her willingness to forgive and her belief in second, third, and fourth chances. Her tenacity was legendary—once she decided something was important, she was never deterred. My Mother did not know the meaning of giving up. And even as a kid, I recognized my Mother’s superpower was to see the potential in people that others missed.  She would often encourage students, friends, and even strangers she met in passing. She taught me so much with her example.  And this leads me to perhaps the most important thing about outstanding educators.

The true beauty of being an educator is the compounding effects we can have. This is the legacy we all share, and it is the legacy my Mother leaves behind that I am reminded of each and every day. As educators, the things we do have ripple effects through our students, families, and communities until our impact adds up to something extraordinary.

As I told potential donors while fundraising for financial aid, by investing in a HGSE student, you are not only investing in one person; you are helping every person that HGSE grad supports, teaches, and mentors in the years ahead. This is a powerful statement, and it helped lead to a successful fundraising campaign. After all, as I like to remind colleagues across the University, education is the profession that creates all the other professions. And because of the incredible impact of educators, my Mother lives on in so many ways.

It has been a bit surprising to hear from many of my mom’s former colleagues and students who have reached out to me after learning the news of her passing. Sometimes Facebook actually has some value, and I’ve gained a small sense of the considerable impact my Mother has had on a large range of people.

Of course, my Mother will always live through me and my sister, and her four grandsons.  But because of what she did and who she was, she will continue to live on in so many other ways and through so many other people. That’s because she was an educator — an absolutely outstanding educator.

I knew this speech would be a love letter to educators.  And as I sat to write it, I realized it was also a love letter to my Mom, my ultimate teacher, mentor, and support. So cherish the special role of being an educator. It is a calling like none other. Hold on to those things — lean into those things — that make education the most important and special profession. Be the outstanding educators and the community of educators this world desperately needs. And if you’re not sure what to do, then do what has worked very well for me: be like my Mother. Love fiercely and unconditionally. Be generous in your support. Lift those around you. See the potential in people that others missed. Have a ready laugh and jokester spirit. And regardless of your stature, fight for what’s right and defend those who are weaker.

I end this year and my deanship with great optimism, and that is because of the strength and legacy I feel from my Mother and the promise of all that you will do in the future. Graduates, you are the light that HGSE contributes to the world. Joining together with the over 30,000 HGSE alumni around the world, you are an incredible force of good. Your dedication, hard work, and ideas will lead the field forward, and with the many educators in the field we call colleagues and partners, we will make positive change.

And now, it’s time to celebrate.

Congratulations again to the class of 2024.


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

Related Articles