A reader contacted me and told me that Nancy Carlsson-Paige, professor emeritus at Lesley University and early childhood education expert, gave a wonderful graduation speech at Temple University. I reached out to Nancy and post it here with her permission.

She said:


Nancy Carlsson-Paige
May 8, 2015

Good Evening, Everyone!

I am truly honored to have this opportunity to speak to you today. This is a big day for you, graduates, and for your families. It’s a celebration of your accomplishments, all your hard work—I know it wasn’t always easy getting here. And this is a day also to appreciate those many people who have helped you, supported you, and loved you on your path to this graduation.

I’m so glad that education is the field you have chosen! It is a rewarding and meaningful profession. It is through education that our minds expand, we get wiser, and better able to improve the human condition. Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

This moment in time that you have chosen to enter education is a rocky and uncertain one. In recent years, the meaning and purpose of education has narrowed. In the eyes of many today, education is seen as a delivery system to transmit units of knowledge and specific skills to our young people that are then tested to ensure they’ve been learned. It’s a one-dimensional, restrictive view of education that has led increasingly to the disappearance of engaging, holistic curriculum, the arts, recess, teacher innovation, teacher collaboration, and education for citizenship.

Classrooms for our young children have seen a dramatic disappearance of play. But we know play is the way young kids learn. And it is also how they build inner security and resilience. I learned this lesson when my own two sons, who are now grown, were very young.

It was a winter day, after my teaching and the boys’ day at school. The three of us were together in the living room of our rented apartment. An accidental fire started from the fireplace—accidental in the sense that I wasn’t trying to burn down the house, but tired after work, I’d made a sloppy fire. I do wonder as I look back now how overwhelmed I might have been as a young, single working mom. So the flames were leaping out of the fireplace, lapping the wooden mantle. I began trying to suffocate them with a heavy blanket. My older son Kyle was trying to help. But my younger son Matt, who was then five years old, ran out of the room.

I started having success suppressing the flames but then I was wondering: Where is Matt? And then after some moments, he ran into the room. He was dressed in his red corduroy bathrobe, his fire fighter’s hat, his black galoshes and a sea divers mask. He had a little piece of rubber tubing in his hand, it wasn’t connected to anything, but he was spraying it in the direction of the fireplace.

The outfit Matt had on was the one he wore for his rescue hero play.
–He had it on now because wearing it was what he could do to put out the fire.

A young child in a rescue hero outfit IS a hero in that moment—and he can fully believe that by wearing firefighter clothes and with his rubber tube, he can put out a fire.

When kids pretend to be Superheroes and other Rescue fantasy characters, it helps them feel safe and in control. Life presents so many challenges to young children, this kind of play helps them develop a sense of security and inner resilience.

Studies are now showing that play is rapidly disappearing from classrooms for young children, increasingly replaced by more teacher-directed instruction.

This test-driven education climate we have today, reinforced with accountability measures and high stakes, has made teachers fearful and discouraged. Currently 40 to 50 percent of teachers leave the profession within their first five years. I don’t want you to be included in that percentage of educators who become too demoralized to continue.

It is ironic that at this very moment in history when we need an expanded vision of education, the blinders come on. We are teaching as if we think that what our youth will need to know in the future is already known.

Our young people are going to have to exceed our limitations. They’ll need to develop wide-ranging competencies to be able to live well in the world they are inheriting. They’ll need to think in new ways, initiate, create, explore and solve problems, collaborate with others, make ethical decisions. They will have to grapple with all the problems we are handing them–climate change, income inequality, mass incarceration, nuclear weapons, war and terrorism.

These critical competencies that our young people will need are not quantifiable. How could you test for creativity on a computer-based exam? Or measure original thinking on a fill in the bubbles standardized test? (Let’s hope no one tries.) What passes for education today—all the facts and skills that can be defined, pinned down and tested– is a very small part of what education truly is and should be.

When I was a new teacher about forty years ago, I came across a letter that a principal had written to the teachers in his school. The words had a profound impact on me, and they have stayed with me all these years—as a reminder of the true purpose of education.

This is the letter:

Dear Teacher,

I am a survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no man should witness:

Gas chambers built by learned engineers.

Children poisoned by educated physicians.

Infants killed by trained nurses.

Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.

So I am suspicious of education.

My request is: Help your students become human.

This letter was written in 1971. And it is so relevant for us now.

It calls on us to understand education as a human and moral endeavor. In school we learn knowledge and skills and the moral and ethical awareness to choose how we use them. We educate whole people—their minds and hearts—so they will become citizens who can think for themselves and make choices for the good of others as well as themselves.

John Dewey believed that the aim of education was democracy and citizenship.

And that each generation had to learn citizenship anew– learn it by living it. Ideally from their first days in school.

I was in a kindergarten classroom one day early in the school year when the teacher was sitting with the children in a circle. She was asking them, “How do we want to be with each other in this class?” The children were raising their hands and saying things like: “We should share! No hitting! If you hurt someone, say you’re sorry.” The teacher was writing down the children’s words on chart paper. She told me that each morning she reads this list with the children. As the children have more experience with each other, they add more ideas to their list. Soon they start coming into the classroom and reading the list by themselves. The words are their words and the children want to learn how to read them.

In another kindergarten I visited more recently– during this era of high stakes testing—all of the children were sitting silently at tables. The teacher was testing one little boy at a computer. The other children were copying words from the chalk board. The words were: “No talking. Sit in your seat. Hands to Yourself.” These were the teacher’s rules.

Most of the children looked scared or disengaged, and one little boy was crying. For them, learning to write was something required; someone else’s words–disconnected from their ideas and passions.

This teacher was required to complete mandated testing of each child in her class—one by one at the computer– 3 times a year. She had no classroom aid. The program’s funding depended on the test scores. It would have been hard for any teacher in this situation to give children engaging, play-based curriculum, and community building experiences.

In the narrowed education climate of today, some people think of teachers as technicians. But good teaching can’t be pinned down to a recipe. Good teaching is a form of art.

Of course our work is grounded in science. But it isn’t enough to know only the science. In education, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Being a good teacher means knowing how to apply what we know, when and how to use it, and how to innovate upon it—and that takes talent.

There was an incident that happened in a high school in East Harlem, that taught me a lot about the art of good teaching. It was at a time when there’d been two incidents in NY City—within a couple of weeks, two teens had been shot and their coats stolen. In this school in East Harlem, there was a conflict resolution program, and the teacher had been talking with her students about these shooting incidents, and the kids were practicing ways to deescalate conflict.

Raymond went to this high school and he had recently bought a new coat.

On this day, Raymond arrived at school without his coat and profoundly upset. At the subway stop near school, he’d been surrounded by three guys who demanded he give up his new jacket.

The teacher called a class meeting immediately, with Raymond’s permission, so he could share his story and express his rage.

Teacher: Raymond I know you are very upset. Could you tell us what happened?

Raymond: I was getting off the subway stop right here in East Harlem and all of a sudden I was surrounded by three guys who told me that I better give them my coat. One of the guys had his hand in his pocket and I thought maybe he had a knife.

Teacher: Go on Raymond. We’re right here listening to you and all of us care a lot about you and what happened.

Raymond: Well, before I could even think, I started to unzip my coat, and I said to the guy who I thought had the knife, “This is incredible. I was just getting ready to give you my coat.” I said, “Who should I give it to?” One of the guys snatched the coat and all of them started to run off as fast as they could. Then, of course, I wanted to pick up some rocks and throw them at them, but I didn’t.

Maria said: I can’t believe you did that, Raymond. I think you saved your life. How come you didn’t try to say “no” or fight back? I think that’s what I would have done.

Raymond: I don’t know. It just came to me, but now I feel so angry and humiliated and I can’t believe I don’t have my coat. It’s 20 degrees out there today and I walked three blocks without a coat.

Teacher: Raymond, how do you think you were able to respond in this way and–I would agree with Maria–probably save your life? Remember just last week this same thing happened in Queens and the young man didn’t give up his coat and was shot to death.

Raymond: Well, I was actually thinking of what we were talking about last week of what makes violence even worse and that’s more violence. I also remember when we were talking about what happened to the kid in Queens, you said, “Remember, you are not your coat”. So I guess I decided to do something that would de-escalate the conflict and not give back more violence, and that’s what I did.

Manuel: Raymond, I think it was more courageous to not fight back and use your skills, but I don’t know if I would have been able to do that.

Teacher: So Raymond, it looks as though you really put your skills to use in a horrible situation. And when you asked who you should give the jacket to you were also de-escalating the conflict by staying neutral.

Anthony: How much was that jacket?

Raymond: Well, it was $119.00.

Tanya: There are 92 seniors in this school—that is a little over a dollar each.

Teacher: What are you thinking here, Tanya?

Tanya: I’m thinking that if I had help I would be willing to collect this money for Raymond to buy another jacket.

James: I would be willing to help. I can’t believe you were able to do what you did Raymond.

Teacher: Well, this sounds like a wonderful plan. Do we need to do anything else to make it happen? How do you feel about that Raymond?

Raymond: Wow. I can’t believe you would all do that. But I know my mother wouldn’t be able to buy another coat. Maybe don’t ask everybody or say, “Only if you can afford the dollar.” That would make me feel better.

This high school teacher had the skill, compassion, and the artful ability to respond to her students in the moment and to build community from their experiences and ideas. And she had enough autonomy as a teacher to be able to create a teaching moment from what happened to Raymond.

Too many external requirements stifle a teacher’s ability to practice her craft.

Teaching is so much more than transmissin of information, test prep, and data collection. It’s why you can’t be replaced by a computer. Or by someone who had a 5-week summer program in how to teach.

But teaching like the teacher in East Harlem is a lot harder today. Many teachers say there isn’t room anymore for conflict resolution programs, community building, and student-centered projects when so many mandates fill the day. But teachers also know what good education looks like–and they hear its beating heart. They keep on finding creative ways to teach even in this climate.

The singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote: “There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

You are holding that light now. You, with all of your energy, your fresh ideas, your idealism (I hope you have it and hold onto it), your knowledge and talent. You’ll shine that light where you can—in whatever situations you find yourselves.

We have to keep our eyes on an expansive vision of education. So wherever we are, we find ways to move toward it. When I look around I see so many teachers, parents, administrators, and students—even a couple of politicians– taking steps toward a more holistic and human vision of education. And I feel sure that we—individually and together—are going to move that big needle.

Margaret Mead’s words, uttered decades ago, are timeless and history has proven them over and over to be true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”