Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
- Nelson Mandela
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Aside from writing a lot, reading a lot and studying a lot, I am also a classroom teacher. Tonight, a very special cohort is graduating from our school to continue on to high school – my very first class, and my second, and my third, all at once. Due to staffing coincidence, I followed the class of 2016 for three years, and the end of their time at our school is a milestone in my career. It’s with pride that I’m going along tonight to watch them walk across the stage as graduates, no longer small, no longer dependent on me, but upstanding and awesome individuals ready to take on the world and change it for the better with the force of their willpower and social conscience, whose lives and learning journeys I was privileged to be part of. Year 6s of 2016, thank you for everything you taught me. I hope you learned as much from me. You have all inspired me and made me a better teacher and person. You still have so much growing to do but you are no longer the bright-eyed, button-nosed, piggy-tailed, grubby-faced little dots that sat on my floor and listened as I explained that proper nouns like people’s names need capital letters because they are important. You are big now, but you are still my kids, and you always will be.
Here are some of the lessons you taught me. I hope you never forget them. I won’t.
1. Always be persistent. Do not give up.
Remember when you were in Year 1, and you couldn’t read? You tried and tried and it just wasn’t happening for you. Every time we read together you would frown at the page and stagger through Here is Billy. Billy has the ball. You cried sometimes. I told you we would keep working on it, and we did. We practised our sounds. We played sight word bingo together. A grandma who visited twice a week sat with you and you tried to read with her, too. Then one day in September we were sitting at the reading table going through a book and you started to get it. It all came together, all your hard work. One word, then two, three, then a whole sentence – and you excitedly yelled, “I’m doing it, I’m doing it, I’m reading, I’m reading!” like a bike rider with the training wheels off for the first time. Your joy that day taught me that hard work pays off, as does believing in the outcome.
2. Always be kind. Do not hurt others needlessly when you could build them up.
Remember when you were in Year 2, and the child sitting beside you couldn’t write yet? You had it down-pat, getting in there with your entries and exits, but your neighbour was still learning which sounds went with which symbols and was having trouble forming the letters. One day you were handing back work for me. You stopped at one without turning it over to check the name, and said out loud, “I already know whose this is!” Your shy neighbour blushed when you handed it over. You smiled and said, “I knew it was yours because of the pictures. You’re an amazing drawer! Are you an artist or something?” Your ability that day to see the sparkle in other people that some might overlook taught me that it’s not hard to see once you’re looking, but that the brightest sparkle in another human is the gift of kindness, because you shone that day.
3. Always be generous. Do not withhold what you can give freely – compliments, assistance, a smile, an acknowledgement of effort.
Remember when you were in Year 3, and we were studying space? I spent a whole weekend painting huge polystyrene balls to look like the planets, and threaded them with fishing line, and got in at 6:45 in the morning to hang them all up in the classroom for you at vaguely representative distances. I wanted them to be there for you when you arrived at school. You loved them and I was pleased. But then on Tuesday morning one of you was standing on my classroom veranda with your mum when I arrived at school. Your mum had to go to work, but you’d insisted she come and see the planets first. You said to me, “I wanted her to see what a good job you did, because you worked so hard on them for us.” Your thoughtfulness that day taught me that a little kind word goes a long way, because you made the whole effort worthwhile.
4. Always be strong. Do not compromise.
Remember when you were in Year 3, and we read that book about Nelson Mandela? I grabbed it from the resource room because it was the right level for you, but we never finished the book because you became so fixated on the concept of a person who would lay down his freedom for what he believed to be right, and we talked all through our reading session. You were so inspired, so passionate, and you asked such insightful questions. Boldly you pointed at the rest of your reading group and demanded of me, “You mean she couldn’t go to the same school or do the same things as us because of her skin? What does that matter?! She’s just as important as us – and even better at Science than me! That’s just stupid.” The others heard you, heard the strength of your conviction, and were moved. Our conversation was so much more stimulating and valuable than just reading the book from cover to cover. Your passion that day taught me that the world is much simpler than some would have us believe – there is right, there is wrong, and what falls between deserves to be questioned, not buried in political correctness; and it only takes one voice to start the process of change.
5. Always be inspired and dream big. Do not listen to naysayers.
Remember when you were in Year 1, and we used to get free activities time? I bet you miss that. You built towers out of blocks every week, in all different creative structures and styles. Most of them collapsed, but you weren’t put off. You tried something different – you had a goal, and you weren’t giving it up. One day you built something amazing, the best tower yet. The rule was not to build above your chest, but you went higher. Above your head. Trying to be a good safe teacher, I told you not to. I said, “It will fall down.” I shouldn’t have said that to you. You said, firmly, “No, it won’t.” You stretched to put the last block on top and stood back. Everyone around came to see the realisation of your dream. Somebody clapped, then everyone was clapping. You smiled bigger than I had ever seen. Your creative determination that day taught me that dreams are meant to be realised, and they take calculated risks and trust to achieve.
6. Always be the best you that you can. Do not be anybody else or let anyone else choose who you will become.
Remember when you were in Year 1, 2 and 3, and someone called you the naughty boy or the weird girl? You started to believe it, and it broke my heart. After a particularly bad day we sat together and we talked while you cried. I said you are only who you decide to be, and you can decide they are all wrong, because they don’t know you. I reminded the others that you were not that label and that tolerance meant giving you the chance to find your feet, even though it might take you a while and you might make mistakes along the way. You were just young so I wasn’t sure you could take meaning from what I said, but you amazed me, because you did it. You embraced the you you wanted to be. Some respected it; others didn’t. Their loss. This will always be the way, but conformity is not your duty. You owe only yourself, and you owe yourself your very best you. Your resilience of character that day, that year, and ever since, taught me that life is about finding yourself, and that while the journey is likely to be an awkward one and while others are unlikely to properly appreciate your personal brand of weirdness, your vision of who you want to be and your determination to be that at all costs is what matters.
I aspire to share in your qualities. Good luck, class of 2016, and thank you!