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Secretary Cardona Delivers Remarks On The Importance of Mustering Will in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University

Good evening, Teachers College, Columbia University!

What an honor to receive the Medal for Distinguished Service. 

I accept this on behalf of Avelino and Maria Cardona, and Germana Muniz, my grandparents who took a leap of faith and traded paradise for the projects, so their children and grandchildren can have a better life.  This award is theirs. 

I’m thrilled to join you here to celebrate this incredible group of graduates.  Congratulations to the class of 2023! Give yourselves a hand.

Anyone here part of the Organization and Leadership program?

How about our math, science, and technology graduates?!

Any supportive parents, children, spouses, family and friends here? 

Yes! Today is a special day. 

Look, you are joining or advancing in the best profession at a time when they need us most. 

In a few moments, you will cross the stage and get your degree…but this is just the beginning.  Never stop learning, and make sure you learn from every experience, and even from non-traditional sources.

I gotta be honest, I get inspiration for learning from all different places…even music.  In fact, there is a New Yorker whose musical catalog is a soundtrack to my journey in education.  Anyone ever hear of Marc Anthony?

Well, he sang a song that, to me, is the perfect metaphor to the role of Education in this country at this time.  The song is Flor Palida, which translates to wilted flower.

After the pandemic, education was a Flor Pálida: a flower wilting under a storm like no other.
  
“Marchita y desojada, casi pálida, ahogada en un suspiro.”  It was gasping for air, wilted and missing its vibrant petals.

Like the learning of our young people, it was severely disrupted.

Mental health needs escalated.

Academic levels hit the lowest marks in decades.

And opportunists who stand to benefit from framing public education as a dead end created culture wars to divide school communities in order to privatize public education—the great equalizer.   

Yes, education emerged from the pandemic as a Flor Pálida.

The thing is, graduates, to recover the strength, vibrancy and beauty of a wilted rose, you need master gardeners.

If our education system is the wilted rose in a garden, you are the master gardeners who will bring our garden back to life.  

And this class of Master Gardeners is filled with teachers of science, teachers of technology, teachers of math, instructional pioneers and educational leaders who will be responsible for executing the transformational change that our parents and students need, and deserve. 

You are the master gardeners whose efforts will lead to a garden of beautifully diverse flowers that will continue to grow and bring hope to this country and this world. 

The song says, toward the end. “Recuperó el color que había perdido porque encontró un cuidador que la regara.”

It recovered its beauty and color because it found someone to water it. 

“De aquella flor, hoy el dueno soy yo!”

Meaning, I now am responsible for that flower….

We now are responsible for education. 

And with the master gardeners here, whether you enter the classroom, non-profit, or administrative positions, I am confident in the future of our 65 million students in America. 

I want to thank President Bailey, Board Chair Nelson, Professor Wasserman, and Interim Provost Baldwin for welcoming me here – and honoring me with this Medal of Distinguished Service.

Professor Wasserman, you were kind to share a bit about my own doctoral capstone.  The title, “Sharpening the Focus of Political Will,” was about something I still believe in: that transformative change in education is possible, if we muster the will. 

Here, I want to draw inspiration from one of your most distinguished past graduates. 

She got started as an early childhood educator, teaching 4-year-olds at a childcare center in Harlem.

At night, she would take the subway to take her Master’s classes at Teachers College, where she enrolled because she felt that “education is the only real passport out of poverty.”

Later on, as a member of the New York State Assembly and then the U.S. Congress, she fought for scholarships so more Black young people could access higher education.  She made sure teachers who went on maternity leave didn’t lose their jobs.  She pushed for job training centers to connect learning to careers.

The name of that Teachers College alum?  Shirley Chisholm.

You might know her better for her incredible achievements as the first Black woman elected to Congress – and the first Black woman to run for President of the United States as part of a major party.

But it was her belief in the power of education to opens doors that caused her to make Teachers College part of her journey.

At every step of the way, she saw how the status quo in education was broken. She reimagined what the system could be.  And she succeeded – because she mustered the will.

So as you go forward on your journey, Teachers College degree in hand, I encourage you to muster your will in three big ways.

First: keep the will to chase your passion, not position.

Look, I know how tempting it is to see your end goal as a particular job.

But if you wait for the position you want to demonstrate the will we need, you might miss an opportunity to make a difference for students – here and now. 

I have the same passion today to serve my students, close achievement gaps, and give them every opportunity to succeed, as I did when I was a 21 year old 4th grade teacher with 23 students.  Today, the scope is just greater.  My passion never changed.  

The second area where we need your willpower in education is in the will to prioritize systems, not superheroes.

I’m sure your studies here at Teachers College have shown you: there are pockets of excellence all over this country.  Name any state, and you can find a superhero principal or an all-star superintendent doing incredible things.

With your Teachers College training, you might well become the next superheroes in education.  I hope you will. 

But let’s also be clear: what we need to focus on is building systems, not superheroes.  Our goal is to have the improvements we bring to education outlast us in our current roles. 

So if it’s working: sustain it.  If it’s broken: reimagine it.  And if it doesn’t exist: build it.

Remember: investing in our children is no different than investing in defense – both protect our tomorrow.  We can’t do that without systems that last.

That brings me to my final piece of advice about how we apply our will in education.

It came from a special education teacher in Connecticut, Rindy Hardy.

At the time, I was just 21, and I was getting ready to leave after finishing as a student teacher.  This was back in the 1900s. 

At my farewell party, she pulled me aside and said, “Miguel, never forget – you teach kids, not curriculum.”

I think it was her way of warning me: you’re gonna get overwhelmed with the requirements of the curriculum.  All the paperwork.  All the rules.  All the mandates from the central office. 

But you can’t lose sight of what this is really all about: working for children.  Working for families.  Working for people.

Education is a people business. 

See, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many degrees you have.

It doesn’t matter what letters you have after your name. 

It doesn’t even matter if you know how to write policy. 

What matters is if you are able to use your God given gifts to improve the lives of the students you serve.  If you do, you will always be happy. 

Passion, not position.  Systems, not superheroes.  Kids, not curriculum.  Imagine what’s possible when you put the full force of your will behind each of those priorities.

As Shirley Chisholm once said: “you don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining.  You make progress by implementing ideas.”

Now more than ever, we need your courageous leadership in education. 

That means breaking the mold.  It means challenging the status quo.  It means being willing to get a little uncomfortable for your beliefs. 

If your bold ideas and leadership are not making some people uncomfortable, you are not pushing hard enough. 

Today, as you embark on the next phase of your journey in education, one where you serve as master gardeners responsible for cultivating a beautiful garden of learners, you will use what you learned at Teachers College to make a difference for children, and for our country. 

With you as master gardeners—our country is in good hands. 

Congratulations again to the class of 2023, and thank you!