Some Advice for Graduating Teachers

Here are some excerpts from the Commencement Address I delivered at Willammette University in Salem, OR a few years ago:

My experience over the past 25 years as an educator has helped shape my outlook on life and helped form my vision for the world I want to live in. But as the gray hair becomes more prominent, my years of experience have also caused me to forget what it is like to be 20 something and starting a new career in education. Over the next few weeks, and probably at some party this evening, someone that is as old as I am is going to lean over and offer you some advice for your future. So listen to us, and nod your head respectfully, and consider what we have to say, but be sure the decisions ahead are all yours:

There are very few black and white decisions, and No one can live your life for you. You need to get out in the world and find your own path, create your own vision of what you want the world to be. Life is simply what you make of it. So get outside, travel as much as you can, play an instrument, learn a new language, try some exotic food, and dance and sing like no one is watching you. I truly believe the more interesting a person you are the better teacher you will become.

With the help of today’s technology you are able to develop on-line relationships that provide a sense of anonymity. The Internet allows us to hide from each other as we pretend to develop lasting friendships. I’m here to tell you that it is just not possible for anybody to have 4764 real friends and life doesn't come at you in 140 character bits. It's bigger. It's messier. And it requires more depth and attention than a single text message can possibly provide.

But modern technology is seductive. It makes it easy to engage and disengage at will. I’m here to tell you that real relationships are built on commitment, integrity and respect. True friendships are demanding. So is being a teacher. You can’t be anonymous in the classroom. You can’t engage and disengage at will. You have to be fully present each and every day. For better or worse, you can’t tweet your way through the required curriculum. The face-to-face conversation has been replaced by the written letter, and the written letter has been replaced by the phone call, and the phone call was replaced by the e-mail that was then replaced by the text message. I don't think we can get much more detached than that.

But as teachers it is all about the developing relationships with your students, not detachments. Teaching is about being there for your students. It's about getting to know the kids in your classroom as human beings, not as standardized test scores.

I give you my top ten bits of wisdom about education, teaching and being an educator that I have developed over my years as a classroom teacher and university professor.

Number 10:
When students are bored and confused it's usually because teachers can be boring and confusing.

Number 9:
Stay away from teachers that suck the life out of their classrooms. There is a big difference between teaching for 20 years and teaching the same year 20 times.

Number 8:
Teach things well. Teach them slowly and thoughtfully and live to teach something else another day. 

Number 7:
When everything goes wrong, go play kickball. Then, come back the next day and start all over again. I have often joked with one of my publishers that I should write a book called “Oh Crap: One Hundred and 10 lessons that didn't do anything good for anybody.

Number 6:
Find passion in the subject matter you teach. Learn to love what you teach whether it's physics, phonics, fiction or fractions. 

Number 5:
The best form of classroom management is an engaging curriculum. Students that are interested in what they are learning rarely cause problems. 

Number 4:
Go home before dark. Get a life. There is a fine line between being committed to education and getting committed. You're an interesting teacher when you are an interesting person. 

Number 3:
Be a learner 1st and a teacher 2nd. Don’t be afraid to tell students you don't know something. Show them how you found the answers. Demonstrate your passion as a learner and your students will follow.

Number 2:
Read aloud to your students every day and let them talk about what you've read. There is nothing as effective and as efficient as reading aloud and discussing texts in a classroom.

Number 1:
In the name of creating lifelong learners, don't make students do things lifelong learners would never tolerate.

But before I leave, let me share with you One last thought.

You never graduate from yourself. Your sense of identity continues to develop long after your formal schooling is over. Indeed, your development as a learner and as a human being continues throughout your life. As teachers, what we have to do is live in a way that makes learning possible. We have to reflect on our experiences and learn from them all - good and bad - and make room in our lives for the things we are passionate about. It's never too late or too early to rework your life. As a teacher, each Monday brings a renewed sense of possibility. Each week can be a do over, a chance to try new things and learn new things from your students. I'd like to point out that there is a multiuser, multimodal, multiplatform reality game readily available for each and every one of you. It's called life. And it is time to get out and start playing it today.


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  2. I would add one simple word - READ!
    Keep reading books to nourish your soul, read books to your children to feed theirs and keep reading professional books, articles and blogs with a critical eye to uncover your own voice as an educator. Don't become the teacher who once told me, 'Am done my degree, I read all those books at college.' Keep up to date with research-based classroom practices that keep us at the cutting edge of this wonderful profession and which allow us to make the best decisions in the classroom to enable our children to work in their 'zone' where the magic happens. As Frank says, we are the magic, not the wand.

  3. This is an absolutely beautiful post. Thank you Dr. Serafini!


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