One of the things I always liked about teaching is that each year brings a beginning and a closure. Most jobs don’t have that; days and years tend to run together, with varying projects, perhaps, but no ceremonial starts and stops. Of course, for education, the biggest ceremony of all is graduation.
Graduation is celebrated with commencement ceremonies featuring celebrity speakers and much pomp and circumstance. And graduates may be bombarded with advice from speakers, relatives, and even blogs like this one. Given my 40 years as an educator, watching many students graduate and even hearing from many of them years later, here is my advice to the graduates of 2017.
First, it is entirely appropriate to reflect on and to celebrate your accomplishments. The very fact that you are graduating shows that your performance character has served you well. Your sense of respect, responsibility and perseverance has helped you meet all the requirements your institution and teachers required. You may be sad to leave inspirational teacher such as Mr. Dean who inspired you to go beyond even your own expectations and ignited a creativity you didn’t know you had.
But you may be thrilled to leave behind the tortuous work of teachers like Mrs. Bottger who made you memorize lines of Shakespeare and write tedious research papers on topics you were not interested in.
However, rest assured your learning must continue. The world is changing so much, you will need to keep learning to keep up.
So celebrate your accomplishments, but remember that character is combined of not only performance values. Equally important are your core ethical values, and these may be even more important as your go forward in these troubled times.
I was pleased to read in the New York Times recently of a student who was accepted into the college of his choice partly because of a recommendation from his school’s custodian who praised the student’s kindness. Author Rebecca Sabky said: “The custodian wrote that he was compelled to support this student’s candidacy because of his thoughtfulness. This young man was the only person in the school who knew the names of every member of the janitorial staff. He turned off lights in empty rooms, consistently thanked the hallway monitor each morning and tidied up after his peers even if nobody was watching. This student, the custodian wrote, had a refreshing respect for every person at the school, regardless of position, popularity or clout.
“Over 15 years and 30,000 applications in my admissions career, I had never seen a recommendation from a school custodian. It gave us a window onto a student’s life in the moments when nothing 'counted.' That student was admitted by unanimous vote of the admissions committee.”
So much of what people do today seems to be driven by the thought “What will this get me?” Students sign up for an extracurricular activity that they don’t like simply because they think it will look good on their college applications. Or they go on the summer mission trip, not truly to help the local population, but because it will look good and give them a good story for their college essay. Legislators determine their votes on whether it will help with their reelection rather than what may be best for the country. But thinking about “what will this get me?” is not what the world needs now.
Graduation is a good time to reflect on your core ethical values and think about how you act on them. Albert Schweitzer said, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”
So as your graduation speakers sing your praises and exhort you to go out and change the world, remember it is your character that will make the difference. Character is the ultimate success factor!
Becky Sipos is the former President/CEO of Character.org. She is now retired, but is working as an educational consultant and doing various writing projects.
Want to learn more about how your character can change the world? Join us at the 2017 National Forum for Character Education this October in Arlington, Viriginia!