There’s no question that the last year has been trying, and I know many of us are anxious to get back to what was considered “normal” pre-COVID. To be with loved ones, to walk freely in our communities, to ditch our masks and let go of restrictions in the name of public health.
I understand that and can personally identify as I yearn to be among the unruly crowds at Fenway Park, to have informal gatherings and parties with friends, and to travel to explore new places. But I ask you to pause for a moment and realize that the last 15 months have been momentous — not only as a time of disruption, but also as a time of learning.
Yes, the impact on education has been profound, affecting nearly 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries worldwide. And the concerns about the negative impacts of the pandemic on learning and mental health are real.
While we would love to wipe away the effects of a tumultuous year, let’s not be so quick to go back to “normal.” After all, what we considered “normal” pre-COVID was actually not all good.
Globally, while there has been a great expansion in primary education, hundreds of millions of children still cannot read or write. Attending school alone is not a guarantee of learning. And in the U.S., before the pandemic, only 20% of children had access to high-quality early childhood education. By fourth grade, only 35% of students were proficient in reading, and only 34% of eighth graders were proficient in math. And in higher education, more than a quarter of low-income students who enrolled in a four-year institution dropped out by the end of the second year. And less than half of all students ever complete a bachelor’s degree.
No, the status quo before COVID was not acceptable. And so I want to push you: Resist the urge to go back to the old normal.
I remember seeing a poem by Leslie Dwight about a year ago, nearer to the start of the pandemic, that asked the question: What if this is the year we’ve been waiting for? She wrote, “A year so uncomfortable, so painful, so scary, so raw — that it finally forces us to grow.”
Through her words, Ms. Dwight acknowledges that it can be hard to understand the importance of dark times, but we do not have to give up and lose hope.
Imagine — years from now we could look back to this time and say it was a crossroads. That at this moment, there was the skill and imagination — and the will — to improve education in ways only previously dreamed. But that will only be possible with action, so I implore you again: Resist the urge to go back to the old normal.
Use the new insights gained during the past year and build upon the work of dedicated educators before you to make meaningful improvements for learners everywhere. Let’s make this year a turning point.
As you reflect on your next steps, I offer you three takeaways from this year to carry with you.
LESSON #1: LEAN INTO THE ESSENTIAL ROLE OF EDUCATORS
To begin, I know that for many of us, the push to support students and improve education has been one that has spanned years, if not decades. And yes, in many ways, the pandemic just highlighted long-standing inequities. So why might this moment be different?
Consider that during the past year, education was impacted more than any other sector, second only to public health. And, in a way unlike ever before, communities realized just how essential educators are. Educators do more than just stimulate minds; schools are more than just physical buildings that provide academic content; and communities are more than just the places we live. So the first lesson is the lean into the essential role of educators. A quote I love from L.R. Knost applies here: “The broken world waits in darkness for the light that is you.”
As we learned this year, education — whether in-person or remote — is about people. It’s about connection, it’s about exchange, it’s about relationships. So we need skilled educators — people like you, our graduates — to create, design, teach, support, and lead in a way that reinforces the richness of our relationships with one another, so that students everywhere, of all ages, can have a rich set of experiences that help them develop, grow, and reach their immense potential.
Do not let the world forget this important lesson. You, along with colleagues and the many partners who care about education, will be the key to making this year a turning point.
In our roles as educators, we have the potential of doing so much good, but let us also recognize the need to prevent and stop harm. As a society, we continue to witness senseless acts of hate targeting people due to some aspect of their identity, whether that be their race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, or a host of other labels applied to divide us.
And as educators, we have a special role in addressing the hate that is being afflicted on our students, colleagues, and communities. We must actively confront instances of bigotry, bullying, and bias, which have no place in a just society that aspires to a standard of excellence built on the flourishing of all people.
Children are not born hating others; that is taught. And in the same way, education can not only give us an expansive view of our world, but it can also expose us to a range of ideas as we meet people with different lived experiences.
So I encourage you to lean in. Lean into the transformative power you have as educators and the responsibility that comes with it. What we do right now matters. If we lean into our mission to not only empower but also address harm, imagine what the next generation will be capable of — fully appreciating the immense talent and contributions possible from each individual, regardless of background.
LESSON #2: WE’VE GAINED RESILIENCE, BUT WE CAN ALSO LEARN FROM OUR VULNERABILITY
Turning to the second major takeaway, I want to recognize the strength that you’ve demonstrated, graduates. Just the fact that you have made it to this day demonstrates your resilience, and I commend each and every member of this community for their perseverance.
But on this day, as we celebrate your achievements, let us also recognize the journey. As Maya Angelo once wrote, “We delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty.”
Take with you this lesson: Resilience is a muscle — something you cultivate and grow through the trials and tribulations of your life. .
Last spring, if anyone had told me that we would spend over a year in lockdown, I would not have believed it possible. We all are now working from a different baseline of what is possible. And yes, let’s celebrate that.
While I encourage us to take hold of the opportunity to emerge even stronger from this year, also recognize that your journey towards resilience was coupled with learning about vulnerability.
This past year, we all learned a lot about things we could not control: the early days of uncertainty when it was hard to get reliable information; a lockdown with no end date in sight; and the torture of not knowing the next time we’d be able to see loved ones.
Even as most of us re-enter society with optimism about a post-COVID world, realize that the heightened sense of vulnerability you felt over the last year will continue for many others, including many of the students and families we seek to support.
One in seven American families are currently living below the poverty threshold, and more than 4 in 10 children live in a household struggling to meet basic expenses. Worldwide, the numbers are even higher with one out of five children living in extreme poverty. These students and their families are carrying an extra burden as they face the multiple ways in which poverty causes harm.
Consider how the vulnerability we all just experienced, and that many will continue to face, affects not only basic needs such as food, but also learning and well-being. I hope we all come out of this time with not only a new sense of resilience and strength, but also a new awareness and compassion for the stress, strain, and uncertainty that dominates the lives of too many.
Education is a road out of poverty, but we must apply our practices and design our systems fully aware of the challenges vulnerable students and families face if we are going to create real traction and make this year a turning point.
LESSON #3: HAVE FAITH IN WHAT’S POSSIBLE
Finally, I hope this year has renewed your faith in just what is possible.
This has been an incredible year of growth, experimentation, collaboration, innovation, and creativity. Instructors have discovered new ways to meet students where they are, draw out their voices using new formats, and engage in active learning approaches.
With the increased use of multimedia resources, students have had a more interactive view of content and explored materials at their own pace. And given the ease of arranging small group exercises, students have had more opportunities to exchange their ideas and benefit from peer-to-peer learning.
Outside of the classroom, the lockdown necessitated using new ways to connect with parents and communities. And it prompted many districts to increase outreach and prioritize getting to know families and work in partnership with them.
What was once hypothetical became real out of necessity during a year when schools and campuses were forced to change their default conditions and rethink how best to serve their students. Starting afresh, many educators revisited a central question: what are the goals of education? Interestingly, we are at a time when even the impossible seems even more feasible after a year of experimentation and collaboration.
Of course, not every classroom successfully transformed nor was every new approach a success, but we would be remiss to squander the progress and promising practices that have emerged. We need to capture these emerging best practices, research them, and share them across the field. As educators, we must continue to be learners and innovators, and this year demonstrated just how nimble and creative we can be.
So the shock to the education system caused by COVID may have helped us all to focus on the important issues that need to be considered in reimagining what the system could be. Indeed, necessity is the mother of invention, and the discussions, debates, and ideas that have emerged present us with an amazing range of new insights, hypotheses, and questions.
So in closing, let’s make this year a turning point.
Lean into your essential role as an educator. Recognize your growing resilience but also learn from your vulnerability. And have faith in what’s possible.
This is definitely not the time to give up. To the contrary, now is the time to take action so that we can ensure that this is not a lost year but is in fact a turning point.
Do not forget the words of Nelson Mandela: "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." If we commit ourselves to addressing the challenges facing education and learners of all ages, we might find ourselves on a better path than the one we were on pre-COVID.
Education needs you now more than ever. Whether you choose to work inside or outside of a school, with our youngest learners or our oldest, in the U.S. or abroad, or even in a job outside what most think of as the field of education, you leave this place prepared and empowered to make a contribution.
You are about to become alumni of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. And as we saw all year, HGSE is more than just a place on a map. As part of this community, you are among a group of dedicated, talented people around the world sharing a mission to improve education. Imagine what we can do together.
Working together with others, our actions can make this year a turning point, so let’s leave old norms in the past where they belong. If we do, a brighter future awaits.