Unleashing the Fierce Power of Your Belief

This month, the new class of teachers who will enter the education workforce in America's schools will graduate from colleges and universities across the nation. As more teachers retire, our workforce is skewing younger. Recent college graduates comprise the largest percentage of newly hired teachers nationwide, who are becoming a significant proportion of the teaching force. On May 10, I gave the commencement speech at the Neag School of Education, the University of Connecticut, where I offered suggestions for the nation's newest teacher graduates, the most important of which are excerpted below.

Teaching matters. You hear that a lot, but it's true. It matters. And so do the children we teach--every single child. If you do not believe in the immense learning power of each and every student, no matter what the circumstances, neither you nor your students will be successful. Finding and nurturing that power is what teaching is all about, and can help you rejuvenate your commitment to teaching at every stage of your career.

New research on brain science uses words like "mindset," "grit," "plasticity," and "resilience" to drive home the idea that attitude matters, and that even the lowest-performing students can turn a page given the right encouragement. These words are all important, but I'd like to offer another word.


As a teacher, you must believe in yourself, in the power of education to change lives, and in what your students can do. I am the daughter of a barely educated son of a sharecropper who married a poor Irish woman from a family steeped in a stubborn intolerance of anyone with brown skin, during an era when both were told that they could not marry each other.

My parents were not to be stopped by unfair laws or norms, so they chose their own way forward. They wed in 1952.

In my family, the idea of being in control of your own destiny was not a topic for debate. My father had faced daunting challenges -- the Indiana Ku Klux Klan in his youth, racial bias in the military, and at times, illegal treatment at the hands of others. Belief was a value my father lived, and because he did, his children did, too.

But when I began teaching, I quickly realized that not every child was so lucky. In many ways, the disparities have only gotten worse. Students in certain zip codes have more opportunity than others--more resources, better paid teachers, and more opportunities that spark lifelong learning like clubs, community service, an array of arts and sports opportunities. The lack of these things makes the journey for those children harder, but not less important. But the difference isn't all about funding and opportunity inequities. The deficit some children face is often purely about belief.

I recently read a book by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who said that something about how his own belief and vision of himself was utterly changed when one teacher recognized him as worthy of attention. He wrote, "It was the first time that I felt a teacher cared about me, truly saw me, or believed in me.... I felt life stir in me. I'd always known that I was smart, but when the teachers at Ringgold had treated me like I wasn't, I'd lived down to their low expectations."

After that day, Charles said he never got another bad grade. More importantly, the trajectory of his life changed... all because someone believed in him. You see--Belief is the most important gift you can give all your students.

Every teacher is a leader responsible for setting the norms and standards in the classroom. We must be bold and catch ourselves when we fall short, and also speak out about issues of race and poverty in and out of school. We must do whatever is necessary to help our students succeed, to eliminate any deficit our students may face, and to show our students that they matter.

The path to equal opportunities for all is an important chapter in our history as a nation that remains unfinished, and I am asking you to help write it.

Teaching matters. And so do teachers. This is a time of great change in America's schools and classrooms.

Over time, you'll see that efforts to improve our education system, like history, move like a pendulum. If you stay in the classroom long enough, there's a good chance that the things we're spending the most time on now will be replaced by other priorities. And if you stay in the classroom a really long time, you may see those priorities shift back.

I've seen the pendulum swing a few times myself. In the 1960s, we saw a push for greater equity and relevance in learning. In the 1970s, we saw the back-to-basics movement trying to address the problem that Johnny couldn't read. In the 1980s, A Nation at Risk forced states to raise standards. Later, that effort morphed into the standards movement that brought with it more testing and accountability, but somehow forgot about the importance of teaching. Today, we're trying to ensure that students own what they learn and can put it to use in any context. This is promising, and it is up to teachers to make it happen. Unlike what happened all too often over the past decades, teachers must shape, and not be shaped by, these efforts.

Know that your voice is important. Know that it's vital for real change. And know that at times, you may have to raise it to make sure you are heard--and continue to be heard.

Even if your voice isn't heard by the powers that be in your school or your district, you can still challenge the status quo in a simple but very important way. Approach your teaching with the same mindset you hope to instill in your students--with a critical eye towards problem-solving, as a collaborative partner, and with a focus on the bigger issues in the community.

Yes, teaching matters. But community matters, too. To date, too much of the talk of educational reform, of reshaping our schools and teaching and learning, has ignored the world outside of our classrooms. As a teacher, you do so at your own peril. You're also missing an enormous opportunity to grow, receive support, and feel connected to the children and communities you serve--and for them to feel connected to you.

Finally, don't be afraid to open yourself to others who may need support, suggestions, even a mentor or a role model. Research has shown this is particularly important for people who grow up in poverty. Thinking back on my life, there was always someone there during complicated periods of transition in my own life. Without their sage advice, guidance, and support, it would have been hard for me to write my next chapter.

As you write your own chapter, you're becoming part of a bigger story--the story of our country, our children, and our future. Believe in yourself. You've had a great education and preparation for a great career. Believe in your students. They will teach you everything you need to know about what being a good teacher means.

To write this speech, I asked a trusted friend in my inner circle about what she would say to you.

"If I can tell new teachers one thing, it would be this--be fierce. The profession might not immediately strike young people as one that requires ferocity, but it does.

It takes "fierce" to battle your own self-doubt when you're the only one who seems to know that "good enough" is just not good enough for your students. Excellence is what you're after, and you're not going to let anything or anyone stand between your students and excellence. Bring "fierce" to the table every time.

You're going to need it.

Be gentle, kind and caring with your students. But be fierce about their education."

You are our best hope for the next generation. You can help students learn right from wrong and in doing so right the wrongs that still remain in our world.

Thank you, good luck, and please--be fierce.

Harriet Sanford is President and CEO of The NEA Foundation.