President Elizabeth D. Dickey’s Remarks at the 2011 Bank Street Graduate School of Education Commencement ceremonies

May 26, 2011

Good afternoon and welcome. On behalf of our entire community, congratulations to the Class of 2011! And thanks to your families and friends and members of the Graduate School faculty, who guided and nurtured you during these demanding years of graduate training.

On this day, May 26, 2011, we launch 408 talented, dedicated, and idealistic people into roles related to teaching. Some of you will be in the classroom, others in museums and hospitals, some behind the scenes as writers, others in front as administrators. All of you bear the Bank Street stamp of approval. This means that, under the watchful eyes of your faculty, you have internalized methods and values that are almost 100 years old. Among our foundational beliefs are respect for children and the educational process, and an acknowledgement of the power of curiosity and inquiry.

But let’s go back to my reference a moment ago to our graduates as idealistic people. You are just that: optimists, looking for the best in others, convinced that you can find the strategy, the approach, the passion to get students moving to learn. You are generous, willing, and eager to give to your students, their families, and the institutions you serve. These qualities will serve you well as you enter your profession, and all of us here today are grateful that you are motivated by these internal qualities. After all, what led you to teaching but an internal conviction of its importance? Maybe your life as a young student was changed by a great teacher or by a great coach, or by a great school leader whose work you admired.

As I have said, we are all grateful and as we look toward the future we expect a lot of you. And this is where the conversation shifts a bit. For never in my memory have expectations of teachers and teacher/leaders been higher. Rarely does a day pass without another policy debate erupting — in the media or among political figures or policy experts — about how to evaluate good teaching, or the importance of measuring student progress, or (even more of a concern) the essential connection between good schools and good education and the future of the American economy.

That is a heavy responsibility. You are graduating at a time when history is on the move, when American self-confidence and arrogance have been shaken and we don’t know how the story will end. Walking out of this ceremony today and thinking about your individual careers, I don’t see how we can hold you responsible for the American economy and our future competitiveness as a nation. But, hearing that China is leading the world in terms of the quality of their education and that America has slipped from first to seventh place, what are you to do? You, who have prepared long and hard for the future, what are you to do?

Here are four suggestions.

First, hold onto your idealism and generosity of spirit, even on the days that are especially challenging, days that leave you tired and discouraged, and even questioning yourself. Hold onto the foundation that you have built, in part with the help of Bank Street. We all know there will be moments when today’s joy and the acknowledgement of your accomplishments seems very distant, but that’s where idealism wears well. It has a long shelf life.