Commencement speeches are, by and large, moments when a speaker tries to “uplift” graduating students with hopeful expectation for the future. By his own admission, speaker Elias Vlanton did something a bit different Friday, when he delivered the address to graduates of the Master of Arts in Teaching program at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Vlanton, who taught social studies in Prince George’s County Public Schools for 16 years, talked not just about the joys of teaching, but he also presented the unvarnished truth about the hardships educators must confront. Here’s a sample:
Future teachers: You are entering a low social esteem, often thankless, profession — condescended to by many and ignored by the rest. You’ll get tired of hearing, at your neighborhood barbecues or cocktail parties, that you are “only” a teacher, and you’ll be lectured by complete strangers, with no training in education, on how they could teach better than you. Your students’ parents might be completely disengaged from their children’s lives and of no help in your mission or, possibly worse, over-engaged, telling you how their little Juan is unique and must be treated with special care — implying all your other students are interchangeable. While lecturing you on the importance of treating students with sensitivity and respect, the school’s administration might treat you with neither.
Vlanton, in fact, gave himself an “F” in the uplifting department. Read his speech and see what you think.
Vlanton received an honorary doctorate of letters from St. Mary’s College in 2009 for his work at Bladensburg High School in helping low-income students attend college by mentoring them. Many of the students attended St. Mary’s as the first in their families to go to college, and those students graduated at higher rates than the St. Mary’s average, he said.
He is also a freelance journalist, and in addition to articles on education, he wrote a study titled, “Who Killed George Polk? A Press Covers Up a Death in the Family.” Polk was a CBS radio journalist who was murdered in 1948 while he was covering the Greek civil war, though it is still not known who killed him.
Here’s Vlanton’s commencement speech:
A commencement speech aims to uplift graduates as they enter the workforce; sorry, kids, I’ll earn an “F” on that score.
Future teachers: You are entering a low social esteem, often thankless, profession — condescended to by many and ignored by the rest. You’ll get tired of hearing, at your neighborhood barbecues or cocktail parties, that you are “only” a teacher, and you’ll be lectured to by complete strangers, with no training in education, on how they could teach better than you.
Your students’ parents might be completely disengaged from their children’s lives and of no help in your mission or, possibly worse, over-engaged, telling you how their little Juan is unique and must be treated with special care — implying all your other students are interchangeable. While lecturing you on the importance of treating students with sensitivity and respect, the school’s administration might treat you with neither.
And the children have their own needs and priorities. They’ve lived to their current know-it-all age of 15 without learning how to draw using the rules of perspective, analyzing why the Egyptians built the pyramids or learning to solve quadratic equations, and think they can blissfully make it through tomorrow in their ignorance.
Middle School English teachers: While Nancy is nodding her head in apparent sincerity while you’re explaining the fate of Anne Frank’s family, Nancy is really wondering why Rafik from her first period isn’t texting her back.
Elementary teachers: Wait until sweet, adorable Chuck comes to school after learning that his parents are getting divorced and becomes, for six hours a day for the rest of the year, moody, insolent and a third grade terror.
Stress and Exhaustion. Remember the media portrayals of teachers leaving school as refreshed and cheery as they began it? Wrong. Teaching is stressful and exhausting. If you quit teaching to become the sole air traffic controller at JFK International Airport, you will still kick back remembering how tired you were when the dismissal bell rang at Elm Crest Elementary. This is not mere hyperbole.
A Teach For America colleague (you know the program, the one that fervently believes every poor child deserves an inexperienced teacher), confided that TFA alumni, even those who attend elite law schools, say how easy their present professions are compared with teaching.
Why are you exhausted? Because you make a million decisions a day. Do you let Amanda hand in her paper late because her father’s unemployed? Is it time to tell Gregory that he’s on the road to disaster if he continues hanging out with the bad boys? Is your lesson on gravity too complicated for 10-year-olds? Is the game you designed to teach the subjunctive mood in Spanish engaging?
This is the daily life of a teacher. Why, then, did I stick with it? And why should you?
Because you will never, ever, have a job that will so profoundly affect so many people for so many years. For tens of millions of children, a trusted teacher is the most consistent, nurturing adult in their lives. For some students you will be a fresh adult perspective where they can receive advice and support; others will look to you as teacher, parent, confessor, adviser and friend. Let me make a pitch here to teach in poorer neighborhoods.
Yes, they need well-trained teachers, and all of you now are well trained. But you should consider teaching in a poorer school for selfish reasons. Unless you leave your comfort zones, you will never realize how rich an experience teaching in a poor school can be. You will never realize that brilliant, curious, funny, engaging students inhabit all Zip codes.
A passion for teaching is not a goal; it’s a prerequisite. A bad teacher, for most students, is not one who struggles to communicate, but one who doesn’t care. If you have no passion for cell division, why should your students? But your passion is not enough; your students must feel your compassion for their well being and success. Students came to my class during every lunch and planning period for one thing: my undivided attention.
My greatest successes as a teacher occurred in these quiet one-on-one moments. That’s when I asked Mary if she had changed her hairstyle to cover the scratches on her cheek, and learned of her physical abuse at home; and when I learned from Michael, between sobs, that he had joined a gang because he felt abandoned by his mother.
I would occasionally lose homework, be late in grading papers or forget to make enough copies of a handout, but I never forgot who was confronting major problems and needed me to reach out.
I would walk down a hall and ask Monica: “Has your father come home yet?”
I would turn the corner and ask Mohammed: “Is your brother still in the hospital?”
Before class started, I would pull Charlene aside and say: “Did you see friends this weekend?”
And after class I would ask Andrea: “Are you still feeling depressed?”
I had not seen or heard of Janice since her high school graduation, until I received this message recently:
Thanks Mr. Vlanton for being there for me during my toughest times in high school and helping me believe in myself! I remember the day senior year when I was in your class, alone, since all the juniors were out for testing. You asked me had I applied to any colleges and I said no. I was so depressed I didn’t even think I would make it to college or what would become of me. And you sat me down and made sure I applied and signed up for everything I would need to go! And now here I am done with college and I have to say I owe a lot of it to you. In many of my toughest days in college I thought of you! Thank you for believing in me.
None of you will ever be me (believe me, that’s a good thing), but each of you can become passionate and compassionate teachers in your own style. A colleague without my emotional temperament (or without the need to live vicariously through his students, take your pick) profoundly affected hundreds.
Before he retired, students threw him a party, and a senior, Ivan, stood up with tears in his eyes and remembered the day when, in the ninth grade, Mr. Conner had pulled him aside after class and told him he was smart enough to go to college. No one in Ivan’s family had ever been to college, and no one had ever told Ivan he had college potential. Ivan did not forget that brief, between-classes talk eight years ago. This month he graduated from St. Mary’s with a degree in environmental science — the first one in his family to make it.
I don’t measure my teaching success by the number of college graduates I mentored or the number of former students driving BMWs; but instead by the small contributions I might have made to their lives. This year I also heard from Maria, who I had had in the 10th and 11th grades and who became pregnant her senior year:
Hi, Mr. Vlanton. It’s almost five years since I last saw you. I want to apologize for avoiding you during my last year of high school. I didn’t want to see the look of disappointment on your face. You did your best as a teacher and I learned so much. I’ve decided to apply for college after five years. I want to major in history. It’s something I’m passionate about ever since I took your AP world history class. Which is why I want to ask if I could have a recommendation from you. Even if you won’t write me a recommendation, I still want you to know that your teaching had a great impact in my life. Thank you Mr. Vlanton for everything.
I didn’t share these stories so you can see what a great guy I am (well, that wasn’t the only reason), but to show you why, year after year, I stuck with it.
I have students who are now exploring the frontiers of math, fighting the ebola epidemic, combating traumatic brain injury and — no doubt the greatest challenge — teaching middle schoolers Spanish just a few miles from here.
My students in graduate school in history tell me that my obsession with the past was infectious and while I am still saddened by the two I buried, and others who are aimless, alcoholics or homeless, they are far outweighed by the many who are much better fathers and mothers than they grew up with; and by those who still care passionately about issues we argued in class many years ago.
And I like to think that a little bit of me is in each of them; perhaps it’s true of all dedicated teachers. Did Pliski, Gregg, Lowell and Chapman realize, when I sat in their classes over 50 years ago at Baden Elementary School, St. Louis, that a little part of them would survive in me all these years?
Teaching won’t give you immortality, but I promise your students will remember and value you for a long, long, time. For me that’s been more than I deserve and, I can assure you, more than you’ll ever need.