The Lasting Impact of Teachers: Commencement Remarks of Secretary Arne Duncan at Lesley University

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Thank you, President Moore, for that generous introduction and for this honorary degree, which I will treasure. I feel so honored to share the stage today with distinguished artists and great leaders like Vicki Kennedy, Professor Chinua Achebe, and Roz Chast.

It is a special pleasure to be here today to do something which I think we do too little of in the field of education—and that is to celebrate success. To our graduates, and to their families who supported them on this journey, congratulations on your terrific accomplishment today.

Think of all that you have been through. Some of the challenges you overcame to reach this day were considerable—OK, some, maybe not so much.

Years from now, when you gather your children around the fire to tell them about your exploits at Leslie, will you fess up? Will you say "Yes, my child, I survived the Lesley Manhole Explosion"? Will you admit to picking sides in the great mascot debate, Elf or Lynx?

I'm told that President Moore and many Lesley students are avid Boston Red Sox fans, who suffered for decades under the Curse of the Bambino, before the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, and again in 2007. Let me just say this. I am from Chicago. You call that a curse? The last time my Cubs won a championship was 1908—the year before Edith Lesley started Lesley University in her living room with nine students.

I joke. But I am thrilled to be here today to honor the extraordinary institution that Edith Lesley founded and helped mold. I will summarize my message today to you simply: I believe that great teachers are the unsung heroes of our nation. And I hope that many of you will leave here today thinking not only how you can help students as a teacher, but as a tutor, coach, or mentor as you move on to the next stage of your journey.

Taking on educational challenges—and crafting novel solutions to them—is something of a tradition at Lesley. As President Moore noted, it is easy to forget today just how different the world was in Edith Lesley's time.

A century ago, every woman, including Edith Lesley, and every nonwhite citizen, were barred from voting in national elections. Sliced bread literally had yet to be invented. Edith Lesley herself wanted to professionalize teacher education for young children—but at a time when kindergarten was considered exotic.

Yet Edith Lesley had a belief in the power of innovation. She, and the leaders at Lesley who have followed in her footsteps, believed not only in the importance of early education. They believed teaching was a calling and the life-blood of American democracy.

Lesley has long had a deep-ceded commitment to individualizing instruction and well-rounded support for the whole child. It is no coincidence that Leslie University has recorded many firsts in teacher preparation. It's Literacy Collaborative has been training literacy coaches for more than 20 years. With Citizen Schools, it launched the first teaching fellowship and master's degree to develop leaders for the after-school field, professionalizing out-of-school time for the first time. That work is close to my heart.

It's Technology and Education program is the oldest and largest in the country. Lesley offers degree programs in 23 states through an innovative adult cohort weekend model—making its high-quality teacher preparation program available to potential teachers who might otherwise not make it into the classroom. And the university's Threshold Program was the first college-based program to provide comprehensive vocational and independent living skills training to students with disabilities who are determined to achieve a life of self-reliance.

I am not naïve about the challenges you face in 2010. Many of you are saddled with debt from student loans and rightly concerned about the tough job market facing new graduates, especially teachers. It is a challenge to think about giving back when you are worried about paying back loans. And it is a national embarrassment that elementary education is the lowest or second-lowest paid college major in the nation, according to one recent ranking.

The fact is that President Obama and I are deeply concerned about looming state and local budget cutbacks that could lead to the layoffs of up to 300,000 teachers nationwide in the coming year. Here in Massachusetts alone, the teachers union reports that close to 4,000 teachers have received pink slips as of May. The town of Brockton, not far from here, has sent layoff notices to 480 teachers, more than a third of the city's 1,200 teachers.

If Congress does not take swift action now, millions of children will experience those cutbacks through increased class size, reductions in class time, cuts to early childhood programs, and reduced course offerings, extracurricular activities, and summer school.

That is why we are supporting—and it is absolutely vital to enact—the $23 billion education jobs bill proposed in Congress by Senator Harkin and Congressmen David Obey and George Miller. The Education Commission of the States has estimated that the Harkin-Miller bill would save or create over 256,000 K-12 teaching positions. In Massachusetts alone, ECS estimates that more than 4,300 teaching positions would be created or saved if the legislation passes.

Now, while the short-term picture for teachers is tough, due to the lingering effects of the financial downturn, I would urge you all to remember that the long-term picture is very promising. In the next four to six years, we project that up to one million new teaching positions will be filled by new teachers, as teachers and principals from the Baby Boom generation retire. Our ability to attract and retain great teachers over the next several years will shape public education in our country for the next 30 years—this is truly a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Most teachers will tell you that the rewards of being a teacher far outstrip its disappointments. Teaching is one of the few professions that are not just a job or even an adventure—it's a calling. It is mission-driven work. Great teachers strive to help every student unlock their potential and develop the habits of mind that will serve them for a lifetime. They believe that every student has a gift—even when students doubt themselves.

There is a reason why so many of us remember a favorite teacher, even decades later. A great teacher can literally change the course of a student's life. They light a lifelong curiosity, stoke a hunger for learning, and teach self-discipline and grit. The teachers that you will remember years later are the ones who wanted you to solve problems like a scientist, write like a poet, see like an artist, and observe like a journalist.

Yet today, too many public schools fall far short of providing a world-class education. We have a shortage of great teachers in the schools and communities where they are needed the most. Teacher openings in science and math—subjects that are so important to the future—are often hard to fill with effective instructors.

I commend Lesley for being the only university to offer a Masters in Education in Mathematics Education comprised of nine math content courses, one class in differentiating math instruction, plus a course on formative assessment in math. For the past five years, Lesley's mathematics division has worked in more than half-a-dozen underperforming, urban districts to improve the content knowledge of math teachers. That is hugely important.

Success in mathematics and science courses is essential to students today in the global economy. But so is a well-rounded curriculum and the education of the whole child, from cradle to career. I wish more teacher preparation programs invested, as Lesley has, in preparing early childhood educators and after-school educators.

I learned the importance of early education and educating the whole child firsthand in my mother's after-school tutoring program. In 1961, she opened a free, after-school tutoring program in a church basement in a poor neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. And from the time we were born, my brother, my sister, and I all went to my mother's after-school program every day. That experience was absolutely formative for us—and we have all tried to follow in her footsteps in various ways.

When we were little, the older students tutored us, and as we grew up, we tutored the younger students. Her philosophy was that everyone should be both teaching and being taught at the same time. After we were done our studies and chores, we played basketball together.

From one corner, the corner of 46th and Greenwood, some remarkable success stories emerged. The teenager who tutored my group when we were growing up, Kerrie Holley, today is an IBM engineer. Kerrie was recently named one of the 50 most important black research scientists in the nation. Another student became a brain surgeon. Michael Clarke Duncan pursued his dream in Hollywood, where he starred in the "The Green Mile." Ron Raglin helped me manage the Chicago Public Schools.

With the exception of my brother, my sister, and I, all the students in my mother's tutoring program were African-American. Despite the challenges they faced growing up in a violent, gang-plagued neighborhood, my fellow students in the tutoring program just wanted a chance to succeed. To see the extraordinary potential that every child has, no matter where they come from—that is what I learned from my mother's work—and that is what continues to drive me today.

As you become teachers, school leaders, coaches, and mentors in the years ahead, I urge you to remember that poverty is not destiny. Education, above all, must be the great equalizer in America. And if you care about promoting opportunity and reducing inequality, the classroom is the place to start. Great teaching is about so much more than education; it is a daily fight for social justice.

Ask teachers and they will testify to that truth. Ask Lesley University alum Craig Martin, a 2007 graduate who runs the after-school robotics program at Nathan Hale Elementary School in Roxbury and oversaw the school's 10 Boys Initiative, which boosts academic performance among black and Latino youth. Craig was recently named one of Boston's Teachers of the Year.

Ask Lesley alum Jae Goodwin, the 2010 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, who imaginatively weaves technology into her fifth grade class at the Charlotte Dunning School in Framingham where student book reviews become reading blogs and Internet video games are used to reinforce the day's math lesson.

Ask Lesley alum, Terry Kaldhusdal, the former Wisconsin Teacher of the Year, who gave up a career as a journalist because he realized that teaching is his calling.

Since 2005, Lesley University has turned out more than 2,400 teachers. Not just individually, but collectively, think of the extraordinary impact you will have on the lives of the next generation! Henry Adams said that "a teacher affects eternity—he can never tell where his influence stops." Teaching is a weighty responsibility. But it is also a unique privilege.

In closing, I congratulate every one of you on your wonderful accomplishment today, and for reaching this moment of passage into careers and adulthood. That is success that richly deserves to be celebrated.

There are many ways to celebrate. And I hope that in the years ahead, many of you will find ways to give back in the classroom. Someday, your students will remember and honor you—the same way you carry memories of those great teachers, mentors, and coaches who helped shape your life.

We are so proud of each and every one of you. And we look forward with great anticipation to the next stage of your journey. Congratulations—and good luck!