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Sen. Michael Johnston's Convocation Remarks

Congratulations on your incredible achievement today. You have completed an intense course of study that has prepared you to enter the world of education as practitioners, policymakers and parents. You have immersed yourself in rigorous discussion of policy, and the exhaustive review of the research and evidence that underlies all of the challenges that we face, and points toward all of the work that we have left to do.

In deference to that I want to take a pause from the facts and figures that build the body of evidence that compels us forward -- with which you are no doubt more familiar than I at this point -- and step back from the complex policy issues that occupy our debate, to focus on the foundational values that support what we do and why we do it. For that purpose, that passion, I find there is no one better to light the way than the students themselves. So I want to share three short stories from the young people I have had the pleasure to know since I left this stage the last time, and share the enduring lessons they have taught me about the nature of our work, in hope that they might offer you some guideposts for the values you want to bring to the profession you are poised to lead.

Whenever I host faculty meetings I close every meeting by standing in a circle and making people stand shoulder to shoulder. We’re not quite set up for that here otherwise I would. When the circle is set and everyone is comfortably spaced apart I then ask them to take one giant step in until their shoulders are touching, and people are uncomfortable with the touch. I want you to feel that shoulder, because this is a human business, it is not done across a desk, or in a courtroom or a boardroom, it is done shoulder to shoulder. That shoulder will be leaned on, cried on, snotted on, but I think the most important reminder is that it is made rich and rewarding and endlessly complicated by the fact that it is a profession with people, by people for people. So take that metaphorical step in, or just snuggle a little closer to the person next to you.


The story of how Raquel’s parents met is one of my favorites. They met in a bathroom in college. How many friends do we know whose story starts like that? Except this one is different; he was in the bathroom to fix the stall, and she was in there to clean it. She was a janitor, a recent immigrant from Mexico; he, a local boy from north Denver he worked odd construction jobs. And there, while the college kids waited with shampoo in hand to get back into their bathroom, through her broken English he managed to ask her out to coffee.

They had 3 kids, Raquel was the middle child. She is a perfect combination of her parents: a native Spanish speaker with high cheekbones like her mom, and sunshine blonde hair and bright blue eyes from her dad. Early in elementary school one of Raquel’s teachers recognized her talent, and signed her up for additional testing that confirmed her unique talents. With this information, her parents signed her up for the district gifted and talented program where she remained throughout her K-12 career. A devoted three-sport athlete, when Raquel got to high school, when her mom would get up at 3 am to go start her shift cleaning bathrooms, Raquel would get dropped off at school by 5 AM to get an extra round of training on the track before anyone else arrived. She would join a stray football coach or basketball coach or whoever else wanted it badly enough to be there. She was a devoted student, got good grades, dreamed of college.

She didn't believe those things were possible, always saw places like this as a place that she couldn't get in, couldn't succeed and couldn't afford. Then her teacher sat her down to look at the ACT scores she needed to be eligible, and she suddenly saw that her ACT score put her right in range of most selective colleges. So, armed with that information, she did a crazy thing after she submitted her application to CU -- she applied to Stanford and Harvard and Yale, and she got in to Stanford, where she is now on the polo team, with a 4.0 GPA working for El Centro Hispano, and about to spend eight weeks in Ecuador tutoring elementary school kids while she works on launching her startup idea to create DreamIn circles for Dreamers, undocumented students, support circles based on Lean In. Why do I tell this story? It reminds me of something so simple and so powerful about our work: Our kids have a RIGHT TO KNOW.

The only essential ingredient for power is information. History is testimony to the truth that the most powerful tool of oppression is ignorance. It is why we teach young people to read, so they will no longer be passive recipients of the information we give them, so that they can be scientists not beakers, authors not words, artists not canvas.

Students have the right to know early and often how they are doing academically and how they compare to kids around the corner and around the world. Not just when its good news -- like in Raquel’s case -- it opens up worlds of possibility they didn't have space to dream before, but even when its hard news, like when an early diagnostic showed our own boys had speech delays. It gives us the power to make changes, and gives us back ownership over how to make them.

Teachers and school leaders have this same RIGHT TO KNOW early and often. They have the right to know how we are performing and where we can improve, because that information informs the path we choose.

Whether Raquel chose Stanford or CU is not the question. Whether a teacher chooses to find a mentor on staff or take a course online, whether my wife and I choose to put our boys in specialized language support or believe over time they will naturally grow out of it --and there are folks in this audience who would support either decision -- any of those decisions can be the right one. But if we make those decisions without good information, we miss entire pathways we did not know existed, some perilous and some prosperous. Information itself does not prejudge the decision, it empowers us to craft our own.

To those who argue that knowing a child can't read, never taught a child how to read, I agree. The right to know is only a first, but an indispensable step. On Meet the Press 1966 King was joined by all civil rights leaders -- Stokley Carmichael, Roy Wilkins – and asked if he believed these dangerous and incendiary and sometimes deadly marches actually changed anything. King said, "I have never felt that demonstrations could actually solve the problem, they call attention to the problem, they dramatize the existence of social ills that could be very easily ignored if you did not have demonstrations, and the initial reaction to demonstrations is always negative…certainly no one would blame the physician for using his instruments and his skills and his knowhow to reveal (any condition) to a patient." Whether it inspires us to take new risks us or counsels us to take more caution, we can only act responsibly when we have information. Prepared with that right to know, our work can begin.


Flavio, a young man who struggled in his early years, didn't show keen interest in school. He had more fun on the soccer field. Every now and again, I would catch him outside with a cigarette or walking the hallways, but he was always funny, charismatic, respectful. He was eventually brought under the wing of incredible teacher who showed him how capable he was, developed him, got him interested in medicine. We connected him to a University of Colorado fellowship in his sophomore year, and he carried around all year on his phone a picture of himself in his scrubs. He worked to pick up his grades, applied to college and got in and then, only as we started to make plans, did he tell me, “Mr. Johnston, it’s not a story I'm proud of, but I'm undocumented, my dad was killed by drug cartel in juarez, so my mom got in car and drove until she got to Colorado, we've been waiting on status for almost 10 years.”

At that point, we hadn’t yet passed a bill granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented kids who had spent most of their lives in Colorado schools, so there was no way he could afford college. So he graduated and waited. We failed twice to pass the bill, and he waited for federal government to act, until one day he called and said paperwork came through: “They want me to go back to Juarez.”

I was furious, told him no way in hell, and when we talked he said, “Mr. Johnston, I'm not afraid of that, not because I'm Superman but because when I was younger wasn't even worth working hard because even If I knew I was good at school what good would it do? I couldn't go to college, I couldn't get a job, I didn't have the POWER TO DECIDE anything, now I know I can make it in college, I know I can build a life here. School has shown me that. I need the power to make my own choices, and if this is what it takes it will be worth it. For me, for my kids one day, its worth it.”

That was way better than my strategy of complaining, I agreed. Flavio went back to Juarez and waited in doorways with a .38 in his pants. He updated me on Facebook, until one day a text popped up "I’m home." His papers were approved, he was home with his family, and his dreams to attend college were open, and then came the big surprise, the big decision. He texted me and said, “Mr. Johnston, I don’t want you be mad, I decided to join the army, after all this I want to give something back to the country that has given me so much, I want people like you and Mr. Espinoza who have always had my back to know that I will have yours, no matter what it takes.”

It was the simplest, most powerful, and most selfless act of gratitude I have ever seen. I went to see him off the day he went to basic training and he gave me his Livestrong Army bracelet, and said, “You get this bill passed, and I’ll make it through basic training.”

He came back five months later, bought me lunch in his fatigues, and I showed him the photo of the governor signing the bill, and we went to see his brother graduate, who would now walk out of high school with all the choices his brother never had. Flavio spent a year in Korea, then came back home to Colorado last week, and now he's ready to start thinking about college.

What continues to astound me about Flavio, was that Flavio was only paralyzed when he didn't have the POWER TO DECIDE, once he could control his own path, he made decisions I never would have guessed or chosen, but decisions that were exactly his.

The POWER TO DECIDE is the fundamental expression of freedom, when we gather diverse sources of information, we weigh them together, and we choose the best path forward.

You have done this in deciding on your concentration, your career, your partner, your friends, your organizations, your words and thoughts and deeds, each one is a minor or major expression of your power to decide. In those small and large decisions you build the work of art that is yourself.

We must build a profession that ensures stakeholders retain the power to decide and that means allowing parents and kids to decide what school is best for them. This means a world of teachers who lead and leaders who teach, a world where school leaders and teachers have the POWER TO DECIDE how to spend their resources, how to build their programs and school culture, how to support their own professional development, and -- most importantly -- about who gets the privilege of working alongside them.

Without preserving for educators the power to decide, we risk suffocating the very life that brought us to this work: you must lead us out of the world of compliance and into the world of creation.

In this world, clear standards and clear expectations are not constraints but invitations. TS Eliot said, "Free verse that is good is never truly free." The converse is also true: Good metered verse is never truly confined; it is a canvas, the way that social studies and mathematics are a canvas, not a limitation but an area of focus, the organizing principle through which beauty is distilled and consumed. You are the next generation of great teachers who will not constrained by the canvas, but see it as an opportunity to show us a world we wouldn't have imagined.

With the RIGHT TO KNOW, we can have access to all the information we need, and with the POWER TO DECIDE students and educators alike can balance that information and choose their own path. In other professions that would suffice, but this calling you enter is different and difficult, and the work is too hard if you don’t fill it with something else.


After we left here, my wife moved to Atlanta and became a social worker in a risk and prevention program. She met a young man named Jerome, whose mom was addicted to crack and was prostituting herself. So when he was about 8, at night when he would get cold and he wouldn't know where his mom was or if she was coming back, he learned to go looking for a hotel, where he would sneak in the door, wait for a housekeeper to go refresh on shampoo, and he would sneak behind her, and hide in the room until she left, then climb under the covers and go to sleep.

His mom died of AIDS when he was 10 and he lived on and off the streets, in and out of foster care homes. By the time I met him at 16 he had perfected it to an art. I remember I came to visit Courtney in Atlanta and I was interviewing for a job and they put me up in a Four Seasons. I had never stayed in one, and Courtney came over. In the car, I was talking to Jerome and he asked where I was staying. He wanted to know which floor and told me the best suites were on the 17th floor. Later, Courtney found him a place to live. He came to our wedding, flooded my room. Then a few years later we got a call. He had been working in prostitution to pay the bills. He got into a disagreement, was held at gunpoint, struggled over a gun with another man and Jerome shot him.

Courtney went back to Atlanta to testify in that trial on his behalf. She was a sitting assistant DA at the time in Colorado. She was there when they sentenced to him to life in prison without parole.

Today, the call usually comes on Sunday about 3 pm, saying, “It’s the Georgia Department of Corrections. Will you accept charges?” A voice comes on the line and says, "Is Mom there?" because Courtney is the closest thing to a Mom Jerome has ever had.

The hardest ones are the calls that come in the middle of the week, from an unmarked Atlanta number on a smuggled cell phone: "Can I talk to Mom?" Courtney always cries after those, and I say, “Do you miss him?” and she says, “Yes, but most of all my heart is breaking over what he had to do to get that cell phone.”

Every call always ends with an “I love you mom,” and then we walk back outside to watch our kids learn to ride their bikes, knowing Jerome is being escorted in handcuffs back to a tiny cell.

Each of you is signing up to be the moms and dads of hundreds, maybe thousands of kids over your career, and you will love those kids like your own, and they will all carry big pieces of your heart with them wherever they go, and some of them will break your heart. You will go to funerals as well as graduations, you will go to court dates as well as parent teacher conferences, you will go to rehab centers as well as weddings. And at that moment when your heart is the most broken, at that moment, they will need you to love them the most.

I am a 4th-generation teacher, and as much as the work changes I am so proud that there is something that will always stay the same: this calling, more than any other, is fueled by the WILL TO LOVE, and to love so recklessly that you are willing to break your heart into 180 pieces and send it home in every ratty little backpack that comes into your classroom, and sometimes you have to drop it into a plastic sack because they don’t have a backpack, or shove it into their jean pockets because they don’t have a lunch box. That WILL TO LOVE is exhausting, and it is the most important thing you will ever do.

I have yet to meet a practitioner or parent or policy maker who wants students to fail, no matter their ideology or approach. I have yet to meet one who wants teachers to be miserable, parents to be disrespected, or students to be bored. Those images are paranoia, not people. To realize that is to admit that we all share the same goal; we only differ on how to reach it. There are no enemies in foxholes, and we are all in this foxhole together. That does not mean we have to agree, it means we should always be mindful of how much energy we spend fighting each other versus the energy we spend collectively fighting inequality and injustice.

Improving our system will require debate and disagreement, it will require a commitment to evidence and not ideology, but that debate must begin with a willingness to listen. The WILL TO LOVE means calling on that love first, so when you disagree with a teacher, or a principal, or a policy maker, talk to her and not about her, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the productive thing to do. To reach out first to those who disagree is a rule I have always kept, whether on this trip to Harvard, or in my work in Colorado.

And in every one of those hard conversations I have learned more, grown more, changed more than I have from complaining to myself or conferring with my supporters. The sound of the choir makes us dance, but the words of the critic make us grow. Returning to the table never means you are losing – it means you are listening. If you are right you have nothing to fear, if you are wrong you have nothing to lose, but if you are there you have something to learn. Treat each other -- treat everyone on this journey with you -- with the tenderness you would treat Jerome, and not the Jerome at 25 walking back to his cell, but the Jerome at 7 trying to sneak behind a housekeeper into a warm bed. We all have our long walks back to our own cells, we all desperately want to be loved and not left, in those moments when you’re tempted to judge, to hate, to hurt, if we are to make it, in those moments most of all we need you to summon that WILL TO LOVE.


The right to know, the power to act, the will to love -- that is what I think my kids would ask of you if they were here, welcoming you to the world ahead. It is true of our moment of education; it is true of America's story.

There is an old promise, perhaps the boldest promise a people have ever made. It states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all are created equal.” On different corners of this campus today there are many convocations, the law school, the government school, the business school -- each of these noble callings have taken their turn in working to fulfill this most ambitious promise. The law school brought us brown v board, the Kennedy school brought us the civil rights legislation and school choice. The business school brought technological breakthroughs that have empowered the middle class to make it possible for more kids to have access to more ideas, and those have all been indispensable advances that brought us to where we stand today.

But where we stand today is equal in the eyes of the law, unequal in the eyes of the children, and it is up to us to finish the work. There is no scalable technology that can teach a child to read, only a teacher can do that; there is no law that can make kids love the wonder of mathematics; only a teacher can do that, there is no judge who can order a child to believe in herself against all evidence to the contrary; only a teacher can do that.

Those magnificent generations of civil servants who have come before, many with those same robes, are waiting on you now. They are waiting because the generation of Americans who will deliver on that boldest promise of all will not do it at the point of a gun, they will not do it with the crack of a gavel, not with a speech from the well of the Senate, they will do it with a book on a beanbag chair with our babies. It is only there that America will finally find its greatest dream of itself, delivered by her proudest and most passionate patriots – the American teacher. The right to know, the power to act, the will to love: lead us there.

Good luck and Godspeed.