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HGSE Diploma Ceremony: Remarks of Dean Kathleen McCartney

By Dean Kathleen McCartney on June 4, 2009 6:47 AM

Graduates, today is your day! All of us applaud you, the class of 2009.

Students, many members of the Ed School community have helped you get to this special moment in your lives: your faculty mentors, the librarians, the program coordinators, the operations team, the staff in student enrollment services, and more. And I know you are grateful for the support of your parents, grandparents, partners, children, and friends. Students, I invite you to thank the many people who have supported your studies here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

I would like to acknowledge three beloved colleagues who are retiring from the faculty this month: Let us show our appreciation to a lecturer and researcher in language and literacy, Barbara Pan; the faculty director of the Learning and Teaching Program, Sally Schwager; and a person whose legacy will continue in perpetuity, the seventh dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Jerry Murphy.

Graduates, you are now alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You are now a member of a community like no other I know — a community of educators who are deeply committed to our mission: improving student opportunity, achievement, and success. When I hear from alumni, it always makes my day. Recently, an alumnus sent me this e-mail message: "I'm back at school today, and I've been reflecting on how blessed I am to work in education. Meaningful. Authentic. Rigorous. Definitely good work." After reading his e-mail, I began to think about what makes our work so filled with meaning. Education shapes the mind and character of learners as we impart knowledge, values, and skills through practice, policy, and research.

Yes, meaningful is the right word. My life was filled with meaningful moments this past academic year.

Last October, the Ed School hosted a colloquium featuring Carol Johnson, the superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. She sat on the stage of Askwith Hall and told a story I will never forget about a middle school boy from Memphis, where Carol had previously served as superintendent. This young man played the cello in his school orchestra. The final orchestra performance of the school year was held in a downtown concert hall. The young man's parents were not there to witness this event. And so Superintendent Johnson volunteered to give the young cellist a ride home; she learned a lot from their conversation: he had never ridden the downtown trolley, he had rarely been in downtown Memphis, and he didn't know what a cello was before a teacher encouraged him to join the orchestra. Regardless, this young man was jubilant. His crisp declarative sentence during the car ride home speaks volumes: "Tonight I was on the stage at Orchestra Hall playing the cello!" Carol's one-sentence analysis also speaks volumes: "The kids we serve are desperately in need...of the opportunity to learn."

As she finished her story, Carol's eyes brimmed with tears. Many of us in attendance took notice. Was she thinking about the fact that this young man did not have parents in attendance? Was she feeling a sense of pride that the school had the resources and the wisdom to introduce him to the cello? Was she thinking about the many children who never get this opportunity? Perhaps she was thinking about all these things. Her story and her moving recollection of it have stayed with me this year.

In December, I attended a fund raising event for the Joey Fund, a foundation that supports research to battle cystic fibrosis. The event was crowded with a diverse group of Bostonians there to support a worthy cause. I didn't know many people, and I welcomed a stranger who approached me with a smile. This woman, who looked as if she knew me, said, "Someone just told me that you are Susan McCartney's sister." I do look like my sister, who is an occupational therapist at a nearby public school system. Throughout her career, Susan has supported young children with special needs. The woman began to tell me about her son, who has learning disabilities and behavior problems. Her son meets with my sister, one on one, outside his regular classroom. The woman shared many of the education challenges her son has faced throughout his childhood. Suddenly, she paused, because she was filled with emotion. "Your sister," she said, "is the first person who really gets my son." And then she hugged me.

This April, I attended a child development conference in Denver. I had the pleasure of hearing a third-year doctoral student present truly innovative work on the achievement gap. She was clear and confident in her delivery of complex statistics; she was persuasive as she answered questions about the policy implications of her research; and, in my opinion, her work was better than that of the more seasoned researchers on the panel. Her advisor is a former student of mine, and he beamed with pride throughout her 20-minute presentation. "Isn't she amazing?" he asked me when the talk concluded. I felt like a grandparent. And I didn't know whether to be more proud of the doctoral student - or her advisor.

I have one more moment to share with you. I am on the board of First Children's Finance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of early education. Recently, the board met in Detroit, a city where only one in four students graduates from high school. Many people, including me, believe that early education is critical to set the stage for school success. Members of the board met with a number of local teachers, including a woman who operates a family day care center in her home. Her hands trembled as she addressed the board. She shared poignant stories of the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers she has lovingly cared for during the past 17 years. And then she told us that she has been studying at night for eight years to obtain a college degree in early childhood education, so that she can be the teacher her children need. Of course, she already is. She spoke through tears, and we cried alongside her, all of us — even the banker in the navy blue suit and red tie, who stood first as we applauded this talented educator.

On a cold and bright January day this year, President Barack Obama delivered these words at his inauguration address: "What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world; duties that we do not grudgingly accept, but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task."

As educators, we know about giving our all to a difficult task. And we know that the meaningful moments matter. A colleague and an alumna of the Harvard Graduate School of Education said to me this semester, "We are really fortunate to work in a sector that rewards us so richly, because we truly do touch the future."

Members of the Class of 2009, I am here today to make an easy prediction: As educators, you will touch the future, and your future will be filled with many, many meaningful moments. Graduates, are you ready for your first meaningful moment as alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education? Then it is time to award the diplomas.