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2010 HGSE Diploma Ceremony: Remarks of Dean Kathleen McCartney

Kathleen McCartneyGraduates, today is your day! All of us here applaud you, the class of 2010.

Graduates, many people have helped you to arrive at this special moment in your lives. Your parents, grandparents, partners, friends, and others are cheering you on today, as they have throughout your time here. Graduates, I invite you to thank the many people who have supported your studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

And I notice that many of the graduates have brought their children with them. I invite all the children here to comment on today's ceremony in whatever way they see fit! This is an Ed School after all!

There are 324 staff members who have supported you, and many of them are volunteer Commencement staff today - they are the folks wearing white polo shirts. Graduates, I invite you to thank the program coordinators, the team in Student Enrollment Services, the librarians, the assistants, the operations team, and other members of the staff, especially your assistant deans, Jennifer Petrallia and Shu-Ling Chen.

There are 80 faculty members who have shared their knowledge with you and so much more. One deserves a special acknowledgment today: Robert Peterkin, who is retiring after twenty years of leading our Urban Superintendents Program. Twenty percent of our graduating doctoral students are from the Urban Superintendents Program -- all were mentored by Bob.

You are now alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. You are now a member of a community like no other I know. You will take sustenance from this place, for it will serve as your intellectual home. You will take pride as you continue to learn about the work of the faculty, students, staff, and alumni. And you will strengthen this community through the good work you are about to do.

You will contribute in so many ways -- as researchers, teachers, principals, superintendents, literacy specialists, higher education administrators, art specialists, policy analysts, leaders of education nonprofits, and leaders in government.

For those of you who came to us as skilled educators, you know the rewards of working in this field. We at the Harvard Graduate School of Education are privileged to have an effect on the mind and character of learners through our work at the nexus of practice, policy, and research. There is no work with greater value than ours. Recently, President Barack Obama said, "...education is about something more, something greater. It is about the ability that lies within each of us to rise above any barrier, no matter how high; to pursue any dream, no matter how big; to fulfill our God-given potential." Graduates, aren't we fortunate to have meaningful work to do?

I am fortunate that my husband is a fellow traveler in the field of education. He is a high school English teacher. I may be a little biased, but I dare say he is the kind of teacher that students remember. He knows that kids don't care what you know until they know that you care. And he cares. This month, a student sent him a card that read, "I am because you are." It is a wise African proverb that speaks strongly to the circle of life of an educator.

You see, my husband credits his successes to his own teachers. Recently, he wrote an essay about one English teacher, Mr. Lee, who taught him how to write. He remembers especially one lazy fall afternoon when Mr. Lee asked his students to describe a leaf. Like many tenth graders, my husband couldn't fathom how to fill a class period with prose about a leaf. But Mr. Lee was ready for his young writers. Let me read you a bit of my husband's essay about Mr. Lee's class.

Standing before the class, Mr. Lee's right hand moves tentatively through the bright air: "Follow the outside edge." He spreads his thumb and index finger. "How long is it? What is its color? Does it change color?" He opens his extended palm. "If you don't have a formal name for what you are seeing, make up a name that describes it."

With these words, Mr. Lee successfully engaged at least one bored student. For my husband's essay continues:

I am mind-walking an oak leaf as I fill my notebook with descriptive prose. The period bell that rings in the hallway seems far away, then calls me out of my meditation to the sounds of students passing to the next class.

All of our education journeys can be traced through the teachers who touched our hearts and our minds. For me, it began with a kindergarten teacher who made me feel safe with her warm smile during those first days of school. So many good teachers followed: a 5th grade teacher who put word games on the board every morning to ease me and other students into the day; a 7th grade science teacher whose classes were filled with experiments that felt more like play than work; a 10th grade English teacher who read my essay on To Kill a Mockingbird to the entire class; an 11th grade math teacher who gave me an envelope on the last day of school with a problem to occupy me over the summer; an undergraduate adviser who invited me to work in her research lab and who gave me the courage to apply to doctoral programs; and a graduate school mentor who wrote articles with me, side by side, in front in her word processor.

Albert Einstein wrote, "A hundred times a day I remind myself that my life depends on the labors of other [people], living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give, in measure that I have received, and am still receiving." It is a good way to live your life. So, I write, side by side, with my students.

Perhaps you are thinking of your own education journeys now -- the teachers who brought you to this moment, including this gifted faculty. All year you have stopped me on Appian Way to tell me about the professors here at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who have changed your life.

What you may not know, at least not yet, is that teachers are grateful to the students who come after them. This is the main message of my Commencement Address today. There are many pressing problems facing education, but Ted Sizer, our former dean whom we lost this year and miss dearly, taught us that education is the profession of hope. You make us hopeful. All of us on the faculty have seen the future this year in your papers, in your class discussions, and in the community you have strengthened. We know the future is in good hands - your hands.

I want to share a sample of the Class of 2010's collective resume.

You are already scholars:

  • You published articles in leading education journals, including Child Development, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, and Harvard Educational Review.
  • Ten of you had your papers selected for a forthcoming volume on higher education.
  • You created a wiki on 22 hot topics in education policy for a class assignment.

You are already working at the nexus of practice, policy and research:

  • You traveled to El Salvador during our winter break to bring books and the excitement of reading to needy students.
  • One of you published an op-ed in a South Carolina newspaper on the challenges that face low-income, first generation college students, like many of us once were.
  • You responded directly to the devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile - you raised funds, partnered with charities, and researched which nonprofits were best positioned to help.

You have already strengthened this community and will continue to do so as alumni:

  • You founded the Student Coalition and ensured that your work would endure by creating an institutional memory.
  • You made a video called "To Love a Place." You made me laugh when you described our "quad" in front of Gutman Library as "quaint." And you made my eyes well with tears, because you love this place as much as I do.
  • You wrote a song for Commencement!

Yes, you did so much in your time here. Recently, a student told me that she came with ten questions and that she is leaving with 50 - she knows that is progress. There is so much more to do for learners throughout the world, and we know that you are prepared to continue your good work. We, the faculty, are grateful to you, those who come after us, because we know you are ready to take the stage.

You know it, too. Please join me in welcoming the HGSE Harmonicas, who will debut an original song, "Take the Stage," written by Ken Offricht and Leigh Jansson. Simone Zamore will be conducting.

Thanks to the Class of 2010, the Harvard Graduate School of Education has an alma mater. Graduates, are you ready to literally take the stage? [pause] Then it's time to award the diplomas.

If you have ever been a teacher, you know that it is very hard to say goodbye to your students. But we know that you leave us to do good work, important work. We wish you success and fulfillment. Once again, let's applaud the 2010 graduating class of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.