Annie Kidder's convocation address to graduates from York University's Faculty of Education
On June 23, People for Education’s Executive Director, Annie Kidder, received an honorary degree from York University at the spring convocation ceremony for the Faculty of Education. In a moving commencement address, she spoke of the important role of teachers in “educating the new generations that this country, and our world needs.” Here is the transcript of her speech to the graduates:
Thank you so much.
I feel I huge sense of both gratitude and responsibility today.
The gratitude part is easy: I’m grateful to York University for the honour of this degree; for the recognition of the importance of the work People for Education has been involved in over the last 20 years (this degree really reflects the work of a whole team of people – not just me); and also I’m grateful for the bridge this helps to build – between the academic community and the world of non-profits – like mine.
It’s the sense of responsibility that’s harder.
I feel as if my job today is to inspire you – to help be part of your “launch” into whatever your next steps are. But, at the same time, I feel that the world that I’m hoping to help launch you into is a deeply troubled and increasingly polarized one.
Even worse than that, I feel at least partly responsible for the mess. My 25-year-old likes to explain to me – often – about how my generation screwed things up. And unfortunately she’s right.
We seem to be a long way – maybe even longer away than when I was young – from solving the intractable problems that divide us and that jeopardize our future.
We haven’t closed the gap between rich and poor – in fact it’s growing bigger. We haven’t overcome the inequities in our society fueled by marginalization based on race and class and ethnicity.
We failed to solve our environmental problems – in fact sustainability and climate change are an even bigger threat today.
We thought the cold war was the biggest problem facing the world.
But now, we have something different and much worse: we have increasingly angry forms of populism that are dividing us and threatening our democracies; we have millions of refugees displaced from their homelands by civil war, terrorism, oppression or deprivation – or a combination of all of those things. We have job insecurity – in part because of the changing nature of work, but also because we’re not necessarily preparing young people for success in the current and future economies.
And maybe even scariest of all, is the notion that this a “post-truth” era – one where people talk about alternative facts, or where people can say things like “I don’t care what the evidence is, I don’t agree.”
So….that’s the state of the world into which you’re being launched and it’s pretty depressing – but despite that, I think there is hope.
And a lot of that hope lies in you.
You – the graduating class in education – actually embody hope. And I hope that you can remember that as you go forward.
There is no more important job in the world than being a teacher. Yes, yes, doctors can save lives, carpenters can build our homes, social workers can help families, and air traffic controllers keep all those planes from crashing. But teaching?
A) you’re teaching all those other people, so that individually they can go on to lead successful lives.
But, even more important is…
B) those of you who become teachers are responsible for ensuring that we have new generations who can innovate and adapt and imagine and continue to learn; who are equipped to be contributing members of society, and who understand how we are connected, to each other and to the world around us.
You’re going to educate kids so that they don’t fall prey to the divisiveness that is so prevalent today. So that they don’t feel they have to be on a “side,” and so that they can understand different points of view and which things are based on evidence and which are based on emotion.
You’re going to be educating the new generations that this country, and our world needs.
But that’s not your only job – on top of all that, you’re also going to have to help groups like ours shift the system a little.
Because if the job of our publicly funded schools is to prepare the next generations to play a real role in the world – no matter who they are or what their background. If we can start to assume of the system that it will foster students – whether they want to be bricklayers, dentists or chefs – who have the capacity and the sense of agency that will allow them to have an impact on the world around them; who will be able to vote with a deep understanding of the issues – and who’ll understand their responsibility to vote; who know how to collaborate; how to take care of their mental and physical health; how to use innovative approaches to problem-solving; and how to take the knowledge they have gained in one context and adapt it to another one.
If we can do that, then there’s hope. Because these have to be the new basics for education. They are the basics for becoming responsible human beings who can develop a world where there is hope for all of us.
And if we can foster those “basics” in our next generations – then there’s hope.
And that will be your job.
And I hope that you truly believe and understand how vital that job is for all of us, and how much hope you can provide to the world.
…And within that big context, I want to finish by talking a little about humanity. Because if we are to make the world an even slightly better place – it’s vital that we bring ourselves as human beings to this enterprise – no matter what we’re doing.
I’ll start, by sharing a little of my humanness. I actually never graduated from university. Sometimes I’m embarrassed to tell people that – particularly because of the job I do.
I never graduated from university and I have taken a long and very winding road to get here today. There have been many bumps along the way, and I have made lots and lots of really big mistakes in my life. I am human.
I grew up in an incredibly dysfunctional family, moved a million times, engaged in lots of risky behavior, and failed over and over. And as an outcome of all of that (and years of therapy), I believe deeply and strongly that it is vital that we try to be “present” as human beings no matter what we’re doing or what our work is. It is my belief and my hope, that by bringing my humanness to every conversation and to all aspects of my work and my relationships, that I can help make the world a little better.
I think sometimes we think that when grow up and graduate and get jobs, that in order to be successful, we have to turn off our humanness. But it’s actually the opposite. That essential humanness is the thing that connects us, that allows us to have empathy and compassion, and even to understand different points of view.
And there may be nowhere that this is more true, than in teaching. Teaching is all about relationships – between students and teachers, teachers and each other; teachers and parents; and teachers as members of communities.
But in order for those relationships to really work, you have to bring yourself to them – even when you feel insecure, or you’re not sure if you’re doing the right thing, or if you’re wrestling with biases that you wish you didn’t have and that we all always want to deny.
We are human. And sometimes it’s really hard to be human. But if we can bring ourselves, our humanness, and our sense of connection to each other and the world, we could definitely have a bit more hope than maybe we do right now.
I have one more piece of gratitude that I want to offer. And that’s to my family. The four of us – my husband Eric Peterson, and our daughters Molly Kidder and Katie Peterson – have navigated lots of challenges, have had many collective triumphs and deal every day with our humanness. Without them, I never could have done this work – I am so grateful to them and so proud of them.
I hope that you are all really excited and really proud. I hope that you are optimistic about your futures, and I hope that you remember every day how important your contributions are, and how much the world needs you.