Commencement Address by Second Lady Jill Biden at the Columbia Teachers College Convocation Doctoral Ceremony in New York City

May 18, 2010

[As Prepared for Delivery]

President Fuhrman, Deans, distinguished guests, parents and most of all, graduates; congratulations! I'm honored to join you today.

You hail from a proud heritage - our nation's oldest and largest graduate school of education. Your former Columbia graduates have demonstrated the power of teaching to change lives and the power of ideas to change the world.

Now it's your time - Class of 2010 – to embrace the best of the past and to bring your own mix of personal and professional experiences, your own intuition, your own knowledge of life, to the task at hand.

I have been an educator for the past 29 years.

I have taught as a reading specialist in public high schools. I have taught troubled teenagers at a psychiatric hospital and, for almost two decades, I have taught English to community college students.

Since going to Washington on Inauguration Day last year, I have continued to teach at a community college not too far from the White House.

As a teacher, I know that over the course of your careers, you will inspire countless numbers of people. Many times, you won't even know what you have done to change someone's life.

And, I also know that every day you're in the classroom, you will be inspired too. And that inspiration will fill your heart as few other things in life can.

You will see strength and struggle.

Dedication and frustration.

Hope and happiness.

And you'll see the pure joy that lights up the eyes of your students when they "get it."

I know that's what has happened to me. Teaching community college students is incredibly rewarding. So many of them are overcoming very real challenges to make a better life for themselves and their families.

I often say my students are my heroes – and I suspect that will be true for all of you too.

I also suspect that you have come to see that wisdom is more than raw knowledge - more than the sum of all the parts, and that it presents itself in many different forms.

For me, teaching is a calling – a calling to serve.

At the White House last month, President Obama presented the Teacher of the Year award to Sarah Brown Wessling of Johnston, Iowa, and her remarks struck me as both remarkable and very wise.

She said: "We need 21st century teachers, not just adults teaching in the 21st century."

So in that spirit I ask each of you - teach us all even better ways to educate.

Share your gift, your commitment, and your leadership with those of us who have gone before you, as well as with those students who await you.

I will close with a quote by Michelangelo.

Most people think of the famous ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when they hear the name Michelangelo. But interestingly enough I am told, Michelangelo resisted painting – he considered himself a sculptor.

And it was as a sculptor that he shared the words that I think guide each of us who teaches. He said:

"I saw an angel in the marble and carved until I set him free."

Teachers are sculptors - we hold chalk and chisel in our hands.

We aspire to see the best of what is inside each person who walks into our classroom – and then we work to help bring that beauty out.

We know that education is the key to unlocking human potential. And we know that today, in elementary schools, high schools, community colleges, and universities, millions of students are ready - and that it is a teacher who can spark their love of learning into a fire that burns for a lifetime.

On a more practical side, I think teachers are Michelangelos for another reason.

He also said, "If you knew how much work went into it, you wouldn't call it genius."

The careers to which you're committing yourselves aren't easy – whether it's in the classroom, as administrators, as researchers, or in the fields of health and psychology.

But they are necessary.

By changing your life through your own education, you have prepared yourself to change the world for others.

Now more than ever, we need you.

That work can't start soon enough.

But it can wait one day. Today. So tonight, celebrate with friends and family.

And on behalf of President Obama and Vice President Biden, a proud nation, and a whole lot of students and teachers eager for your energy and ideas – congratulations!

Jill Biden, Commencement Address by Second Lady Jill Biden at the Columbia Teachers College Convocation Doctoral Ceremony in New York City Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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