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College of Education > News and Publications > 2019: 10-12 news > Secretary of Education shares reasons teaching became his calling

Secretary of Education shares reasons teaching became his calling

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera gave the keynote address for the College of Education’s spring commencement ceremony. Following are excerpts from his remarks.

Spring commencement
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera was the keynote speaker for spring 2019 commencement in the College of Education. (Image: Jim Carlson)
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera gave the keynote address for the College of Education’s spring commencement ceremony. Following are excerpts from his remarks.

Good afternoon everyone. Are we not celebrating today? I know it’s Sunday. I know it’s been a long weekend for some of you. But let’s try that again. Good afternoon everyone. [Hears response.] Now that’s much better.

I want to share with you a few secrets and little of how and why I have been blessed to serve in the roles that you’re going to be serving in over the course of your lifetime moving forward.

Probably one of the most interesting questions or most impactful questions I get especially from young educators is ‘how do you become Secretary of Education?’ Now I’m going to be honest with you, those individuals who knew me as a kid, they said it a bit differently. They asked, ‘how did you become the Secretary of Education?’

Now I have to be honest, I don’t know. I don’t know how you become the Secretary of Education. But I can tell you why I chose teaching as not only my profession but my calling. 

Unlike you, unlike everyone in this room, I struggled in school. Going through K to 12, coming on here to college and receiving my degree and then it got easier as I continued to further my degree.

But I learned through this experience that I was called into teaching. I didn’t know when I started college what I wanted to be, what I thought my trajectory would be. But I had an opportunity to tutor a high school student in a community much like the one I grew up in. It was an experience that really opened my eyes. As I sat and tried to engage and tutor him in algebra and I saw his facial expression and his body language and I saw that it just wasn’t connecting for him, he just wasn’t getting it. And saw how in his eyes I could measure the level of frustration he was feeling.

I thought to myself, ‘wow, that must’ve been me when I was sitting in classrooms struggling around different content areas.’ But I kept trying. And I kept trying. And I kept trying. And eventually, I saw a difference in his demeanor. I saw his eyes start to perk up. He sat straight. He pulled the hood off of his head and pulled it back and we started to engage. He started to understand the lesson.

And I was hooked. I wanted to continue. I knew this is what I wanted to do in continuation of my career. I wanted to make a difference each and every day with students who felt like I did sometimes in school but didn’t necessarily have the resources and the support to get me over the finish line.

Spring commencement
A graduate points to family in the crowd as he processes along with graduating classmates at spring commencement 2019. (Image: Jim Carlson)
I knew I wanted to connect with kids each and every day to make a difference. My ‘why’ was going to be changing the trajectory for students who grew up just like me in urban and poor communities. So, I couldn’t wait to get my career started. But I had to. Because I really wanted to teach in Philadelphia. I really wanted to teach in the community I grew up in. I really wanted to teach in North Philadelphia.

Some folks called it the badlands. I called it home. But I had to wait. Because I just hadn’t gotten a call back from the School District of Philadelphia. And although I had three other offers on the table I was holding off to the very last minute. But I started to panic. Because what if I had to move? What if I had to buy a car because I didn’t own a car at the time? What if I had to leave my family and friends again after I had just gotten home?

During my free time in between shifts at work I took the time to volunteer. I took time to better get to know my community through a different lens. I volunteered with the block captain, helping give out free summertime lunches. Now I will tell you, you’ve never experienced anything until you are sitting on a porch in July and you open a big box of bologna sandwiches. If nothing else brings you home to reality that absolutely will.

But although I loved it and I loved every minute of it, there was an unintended opportunity and a consequence through these interactions. I started to build a professional network. I met other teachers. I met other volunteers. I met community members. I started to establish relationships with parents and children.

And the relationships and the opportunity of what I learned then continue to inform me through my experiences as a teacher and ultimately an administrator. So, my “why” at that point was knowing that you’re volunteering and engaging in a community but relationships matter.

Now finally I get my call back from the School District of Philadelphia. Even better, I was only one bus ride away from my first teaching classroom. And this is where I learned another important lesson. Because one day when I stepped off the bus to 47th and started walking to my school, there was a parent in front of me walking their two children to school as well. And it was a rough walk. The kids were in a bad mood, the parent was in a bad mood. They had an exchange that probably wasn’t the most comforting of exchanges. It was obviously a stressful morning. It was the longest short walk I have ever seen in my life.

So I made a decision that day right then and there, I was going to stand outside of my classroom and I was going to greet, look in their eyes, smile and greet and say ‘good morning’ to each and every one of my students. I still start every interaction – like I did today – with a ‘good morning,’ ‘good afternoon’ or ‘good evening.’

And I won’t stop until they acknowledge that I said ‘good morning,’ ‘good afternoon’ or ‘good evening’ – with enthusiasm. Because when you’ve stood in front of seventh and eighth graders and said ‘good morning,’ and they look at you and respond ‘ugh’ and you do it again and again and again, until they finally start to look at you with a smile on their face and say ‘good morning.’ Or they stop and wait for it, you know that you are starting to make not only a difference in the life of that child but you are starting your day on the right foot.

I did it for every child. Even Carlos. Now you don’t know who Carlos is? But you are going to have a Carlos in your classroom. You’re going to have a Carlos in your life. So I remind you, that you don’t know what’s going on at home for Carlos. Look them in the eye, smile and say ‘good morning.’ I had the opportunity to engage in that way and learn that important lesson over the course of my teaching career.

Spring commencement
Graduates sing the alma mater at spring 2019 commencement. (Image: Jim Carlson)
I transitioned from middle school to high school, and I wanted to be helpful. And that’s where I learned another important lesson. I approached our union rep at the time and asked if I could help him. Because he used to handwrite the meeting minutes and then run them through a thermal fax machine. Now how many students in this room know what a thermal fax machine is? There you go.

We had computers. We had technology and had we copy machines. Thermal fax were these machines that used to use hot ink to transfer what you wrote on one page to different pages. The only thing they were good for back in those days and I’m sure your parents in the auditorium will tell you is taking the hot ink piece of paper and taking a big whiff of the hot ink because it just smelled really interesting.

So, I approached him and I shared, ‘hey, if you give me the minutes, I will type them up and run them off on the photocopy machine and put them in everyone’s mailbox so we actually know what took place at our last meeting.’

I was trying to be helpful. And he looked at me and he said ‘you know, you little piece of something, if you think you can do a better job run against me.’ I was thrown back. I was in shock. I walked away. I was a newer teacher. So, my classroom is on the third floor the back corner. I walked up the first flight of stairs and I was still a little in shock to be honest with you. By the second flight of stairs, it all started to sink in. By the time I made it to the third floor, I was angry. And when I made it all the way to the corner in my classroom, I decided I was going to run against him.

So, we campaigned, we had five minutes to share our campaign. This individual shared the history of everything he’s done and he engaged in a different way. Then I have my five minutes. I stood up and said ‘look if you elect me, I’m going to type up all the minutes, run them off on the photocopy machine and put them in your mailbox. Thank you very much.’ And I won. Little did I know that was my trajectory into leadership.

But the lesson learned there was as educators, we sometimes have to walk into our classroom and spend time alone, but that’s not an excuse to not be collaborative. That’s not an excuse to not listen to others because there might be a better idea out there. And this is a lesson to you all in this room that you will absolutely have something to share with the most tenured and seasoned teachers in your building. So, don’t be shy. Share, collaborate and support.

As teachers, remember you don’t only influence as educators, you don’t only influence the students that are in front of you but your impact follows them home after school, over the weekends and over the summer. The relationships you build one relationship at a time can help change the trajectory of communities.

You’ll be the individual that makes a difference in the lives of all of those who are entrusted to your care. So, in a little over 20 years I remember all the smiling faces, I remember the ‘good mornings,’ I remember the interactions, I remember the relationships. I remember the reasons why I chose to become a teacher and ultimately a leader in education.

But I never lost sight of the fact, as I like to share, my role, my job as an educator is to ensure our kids are better – they have to be better – the day they leave us than they were the day they started.

So today you get to start your own chapters and understand, this is an awesome and amazing responsibility. Educating our next generation of leaders, educators. Our next generation of community members and neighbors.

As a student teacher once shared with me on one of my visits, she said I’m excited to become a teacher because it’s the occupation that creates all other occupations.

And since that time, I added it’s the act of service that prepares all others that serve. It’s the gift the talented use to cultivate talent. It’s the calling that transforms communities one student at a time.

So the future is quite literally in your hands.

So remember why you chose to become an educator. You chose to do so to change the world and because of that, I am proud to now call you my colleague. Thank you, good luck and move forward.