Commencement Night Reflections

My family after commencement ceremony

Despite my paperwork and degree being completed in the fall of this past year, there was only one commencement ceremony for the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota this spring. So, when I decided to walk in commencement last week, my thoughts were, as I already had my degrees framed and placed on the wall weeks ago – that I would do it only so my three young boys could see the end result of my late hours and hard work all the while raising them to be the young men that they are. It has all been so abstract for them.

I started my Masters program when I was pregnant with my first son; he is now 12 years old. I received my Masters in education around the time that I had my third son, and went on to pursue my doctorate. The culmination of all of this work happened in a real way last week, as I sat there with my colleagues, professors and friends waiting for my Ed.S. to be conferred. I imagined the night as something that would be exciting for the boys to see, as well as important for them to realize. A woman, not just any woman, but their mother, going through all of the pomp and circumstance in full regalia! I was so very right in thinking that it would be a good thing for them to be a part of – they are still congratulating me as I tuck them in for bed at night, and wearing my mortar board around the house during the day, all the while talking about what they want to do when they grow up.

My advisor and friend, Jennifer York-Barr

As important as that was that night, I have since been reflecting on what the bigger picture and take away learning there is for me around this event. That night, my husband, kids and best friend were watching and waiting patiently for my name to be called, so they could cheer me on. Also present were all of my professors that have taught me to think critically and deeply about my practice, and especially important to me was my advisor, the one that has become my dear friend and biggest supporter professionally. Add to that, the people that were going through the classes and the work right alongside me, who were there in their gowns, with all of their friends and families patiently waiting to cheer them on – it was humbling, and an honor.

The evening’s events have affirmed some of my beliefs about education and how to do good work within the field. One thought that comes to mind is the danger of thinking about people having a single story that defines them. Just as I sat there during commencement, knowing what many stories I have that got me to be in that place at that time, I realized that children in schools, and the teachers that are with them every day, also have many stories that get them to that place in time. I believe that there are many examples within education that we see children as having a single story – one sided, one note, one collection of skills or assets – or, unfortunately, one set of deficits that make them who they are as learners. As I sat there at commencement, I realized that part of my work going forward needs to be creating opportunities for adults to see the many stories of the children that they teach, the gifts they bring to the classroom, and empowering them as teachers to support each individual student in the ways that matter for each child. How do we, as teachers and administrators, create places for kids to tell their stories and add to their lifelong novels? How do we teach them to feel empowered, resilient, creative and whole? How do we understand the stories that the adults have that bring them to where they are in their professional practice and honor them for all of their experiences?

Another thought that I have had since sitting through commencement is how important relationships are in the learning environment. As I sat there, I was struck with the notion of how many different types of relationships I had with the people around me in that arena. Of course, there were supportive family and friends. There were also professors that pushed and stretched my thinking even when I didn’t want to do the work or didn’t feel confident in the topic. There were colleagues that were at times supportive – other times competitive and critical.

I was surprised a couple of times during the evening in ways that I never could have envisioned. For example, a professor that I admire the work of immensely, whom I haven’t seen in years since being in her class – was just short of jumping up and down to greet and congratulate me at the end of the stage as I walked across. I was startled, didn’t think she would express such support in an outward way towards me, and it felt amazing. Likewise, there were people that surprised me in negative ways – competition is still very much a part of our relationship, and I realized maybe that will be one more piece of personal inspiration for me to be even better at what I know how to do going forward in my work.

Relationships within schools are extremely important. Whether we are talking about the relationships of the adults or of the kids, or the relationships of the adults and kids together with each other – relatedness is everything. How do we acknowledge this in schools? How do we work together as adults and model and teach that to the children? Dissent and competition are not uncommon in schools, and quite honestly, shouldn’t be feared. Not everyone is going to get along – how do we work together anyway? If there is dissent and competition, how do we depersonalize it and see it as an attribute or strength within our teams? Most importantly, how do we actively teach our students the same behaviors?

Students need to be pushed, stretched, supported and taught how to manage and succeed – even more so when they don’t feel strong or able in their learning to do so. Resilience and importance of relationships, success and feeling of accomplishment, honoring the whole child and all of their stories that make them who they are….that is the work we have cut out for us – all of us that sat there that night at the commencement of the College of Education and Human Development. I, personally, can’t wait to start the good work of creating schools that look this way, in the ways I know how!

My first hugs from my boys!

Please share or comment about ways that your school or classroom does this successfully, and let the learning begin!

4 thoughts on “Commencement Night Reflections

  1. Shelly Damm

    I am very proud of you for achieving your degree, and while raising amazing kids. I am touched by you thoughtfulness and openness with regard to your field. So very glad to have your input in the field of education. Congratulations and Thanks!

  2. Gail Ghere

    Congratulations, Jenny! I loved reading all that have written. It captures all that you have brought to the field so far that has benefited children and what is yet to come. Take care.


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