On Saturday, May 6, 2017 I had the honor of delivering the keynote address at the Shepherd University Teacher Pinning Ceremony. Below is a transcript of that speech.
Good morning, and first let me say Congratulations! Years of hard work and study come to fruition today. This is an incredible and momentous event, and you should be very proud of this accomplishment. Let’s give our graduates another round of applause.
Now, let me say thank you.
Because you have chosen to enter the most rewarding and challenging profession in our country today at a time when teacher shortages are at an all-time high. Teaching is an incredible act of service. And when you enter into the service of others, you have chosen a job that ultimately is about the greater good. By becoming an educator you have decided that you want to dedicate your life to literally making the world a better place. And that is not hyperbole. Your actions and words every day will have the ability to affect the leaders of tomorrow. This responsibility is awe-inspiring. And at times a bit daunting. I have tried to articulate the enormity of this many times, but Uncle Ben said it best when he looked at a young Peter Parker in Marvel’s Spiderman and said, “Son, with great power comes great responsibility.”
Because there is no service without some sacrifice.
Being a teacher can at times be extremely polarizing. Some of your days will be very hard and very thankless. And any teacher who says, “oh yeah, this job is a breeze” isn’t doing it right or has a magic key I have not yet discovered. And unfortunately, no matter what Hollywood movies tell us, this job will not be all standing on desks and yelling “O Captain, My Captain” or wearing cool leather jackets and jeans to school while Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise plays in the background.
No- sometimes this job will get the best of you. Sometimes you will pour your heart and soul into a lesson, and no one will get it. Sometimes you will be kind to a student who no matter what you do will not like you. Sometimes you will so overwhelmed by the difficulty of this job that you spend your lunch or planning period hiding somewhere to have a good cry.
But you know what makes it worth it?
Because sometimes you will pour your heart and soul into a lesson, and fireworks will go off in every set of eyes sitting in front of you. Sometimes you will be kind to a student, who will tell you later that that kindness changed his or her life. Sometimes you will be so overwhelmed by the magic of this job that you will spend your lunch or planning period wiping away tears of joy.
Teaching is miraculous. And maddening. It is hopeful. And heart-wrenching. It will make you laugh. And it will make you cry. And there is no shame in that. I teach the novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie and in the book Junior’s basketball coach says to him. “If you love something enough, it’s going to make you cry.”
And no one goes into teaching unless you have love for something. Whether it’s math, or science, or music, or reading and writing, or working with young people, or coaching, we become teachers because something in our hearts drives us to the profession. We all know that it certainly is not the lucrative salary or low-stress work environment, but joy and love and service that brings us to education.
Today, I’d like to give you three pieces of advice. These are three things that have helped me say focused on that joy and love and service. Things that are integral to finding success in your classroom, and to staying in the profession longer than just a few years.
My first piece of advice is to always choose love.
You see because without love, this job is too hard. Without love, it does ask too much of us. And whether you realize it or not, when you chose to major in education, to become a teacher, you have already chosen love.
Now, I know some of you are mentally eye-rolling. I teach teenagers and can always sense a good mental eye-roll. And I get it. I admit, “choose love” sounds a bit hippy-dippy.
And no, I’m not saying you have love every minute of your job and all your students. That’s impossible. And truthfully, some of parts of this job and some students will be downright unlovable. Though it does make teaching them, infinitely easier if you do at least try to like them.
What I am saying is that you do always have to try love what you’re doing--what you’re teaching. And this is an active choice you can make. You’re the teacher. You’re in charge of your room and your lesson. The minute you stop loving what you’re teaching or how you’re teaching it, both your students’ lives and your life will become joyless.
So choose love.
Because by choosing love you are choosing to be the kind of teacher both the lovable and the unlovable kid would like to have in class. When you choose love you automatically start finding ways to make your students like or love what you’re teaching, and as one of my personal teacher heroes, Rita Pierson, put it, “Kids can’t learn from someone they don’t like.” And if you haven’t seen Pierson's Ted Talk called “Every Child Needs a Champion” I would recommend watching it immediately.
And while you don’t have to love the people your students may be, you do have to love them as learners. And seeing them learn will remind you why you chose this job, why you chose love and service from the start. It’s not uncommon for my husband to find me at our kitchen table, furiously re-writing a lesson, snarling at my family through gritted teeth, “everybody give me a few minutes, I’m trying to figure out how to love _______(fill in the blank with any student's name here).” Because no matter how unlovable they may be, when I see them learning, engaging in class and with literature and writing, in that instant, I love them.
So always try to choose love.
My second piece of advice is to remember that your students are human. And humans are emotional and unpredictable. And sometimes we need to respond to our students as one human to another—not as teacher to student. You must always expect the unexpected. You will encounter countless situations and experiences in this job that no teacher training class could prepare you for. For example, in my fifteen years as a high school English educator I have also functioned as an event planner, a counselor, a secretary, a clergyman, a parent, a club advisor, a social director, a nurse, a lunch lady, and an athletic coach.
I have ignored and been ignored.
I have celebrated and been celebrated
And I have loved and been loved.
All of this and still you have teach them your curriculum. You still have to think about standards and grades and achievement. You still have to do the job.
This job will demand a lot from you, sometimes more than you think you have to give. But that is what makes it incredible— the service and the sacrifice. The giving of yourself to the greater good. The choosing of love.
I would like to close with my last piece of advice: talk to your students. Ask them what they think. They want to be listened to. They want to be a part of the learning experience. And they are smart. They will make you a better person and a better teacher.
This past week, I followed my own advice; I asked my students for help. I said to each of my classes, “hey guys--I have to give a speech on Saturday to bright, shiny, new first year teachers. If you could give them advice for their career from a high school student, what would say?”
So now from the mouths of babes is some sage advice from a few of my 11th grade English students and some graduating seniors:
Dominique: “Don’t be too controlling of the students. Give them responsibilities according their age.”
Marie: “Don’t tell bad jokes and then laugh at your bad joke.”
Corbin: “If you teach until you’re over 50, please don’t nag us about how miserable and tired you are. I don’t care if you’ve taught for 30 years. If you hate kids get out now.”
Maddy: “Don’t teach us a new thing every day. Sometimes you have to let things sink in for a day or two.”
Zachary: "Some of us have many hard classes. We don't just have one hard class. Remember that your class isn’t the only one I have all day."
Chloe: “Don’t be stressed. Have fun at your job.”
Grace: “Don’t grade papers on the weekends. It will make you stressed and mean. Give yourself some non-teacher time.”
(Apparently, my students are very concerned about teacher stress levels.)
Trinity: “Don’t expect to be respected without giving respect first. Also- school isn’t our life. We have lives outside your room. Be aware of that.”
Hannah: "If you print worksheets off the Internet, make sure they are not out of date, and that they are correct. Also- we know how to Google.”
Thabiso: "We can smell your fear."
Berenice: “Always wear matching socks.”
Dayquan: “Kids are going to be annoying. Prepare for the worst. Be happy when it’s the best.”
Jake: “You know nothing Jon Snow.”
Hayley: “Whatever you do, don’t dance at prom.”
Liam: "Try not to take anything personally. Speak softly and carry a big stick. Also, snacks are always ok.”
Kaitlyn: "Be a person and make connections. Also, if you don't know an answer, admit it."
Lee: "Have a structured class. And act like you want to be there. If you want to be there, then we will want to be there. "
Eric: "If students know you put work into a lesson, then we will put work into doing it."
Kat: "Be a mentor."
Mark: "Smile. And have patience."
Autumn: "Incorporate parts of yourself into your teaching style."
Ally: "Just do your best."
Ben: “Take it easy. Try to love your job.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Congratulations graduating Educators of the Class of 2017. Thank you having me today, and for choosing this amazing life. Best of luck.
Jessica Salfia is a proud Shepherd University Alumni, the President of the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English, a high school English teacher, and a writer. She lives and works in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.