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Speech

Wellington College of Education Graduation Ceremony

Issue date: 
Tuesday, 1 December 1992
Speaker: 
The Hon Dame Catherine Tizard, GCMG, GCVO, DBE, QSO

Graduands and partners, mums and dads, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, teachers and, just to make sure no-one gets left out, ladies and gentlemen.

As soon-to-be teachers, it's possible that you graduands here this afternoon have already mentally toyed with the thought that you will have influence in the world. And if you have, you'd be quite right.

For instance, even preparing for this speech involved some homework. From now on, as a qualified teacher, you'll be setting it, as well as doing it. If this isn't influence, it's a pretty good facsimile.

The speech homework involved research (as well as some self-indulgent browsing) into what thoughts others have had on the subjects of education in general, teaching, schools, and so on.

Many definitions were, perhaps, a little sardonic. For example, I saw education characterised as "that which would enable you to earn more than an educator." (Not 100 per cent encouraging really, is it?)

Other definitions were based on comparisons. There was an ironic one from the American singer, Pete Seeger - a household name of my generation rather than yours.

He once asked the rhetorical question, "Do you know the difference between education and experience?" and answered by saying that, "education is what you get when you read the fine print. Experience is what you get if you don't."

Then there were the quotes from various writers, academics and the like, not all of which reported "happy school-days." "I owe my teachers a lot," threatened one Canadian, "and mean to pay them back one day."

HG Wells saw things more from the teacher's point of view. In describing someone once, he noted that, "His studies were pursued but never effectively overtaken."

But then of course, among all the pages of thoughts and quotes about education and teachers, there's that glib little aphorism that always raises my blood pressure by several inches of mercury whenever it is advanced as something more than verbal mischief: "He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches."

I always used to reject, reject now and will continue to reject, the idea that teachers as a genus are failed anythings. (And the fact that I taught for some years at Auckland University is irrelevant.)

George Bernard Shaw said a lot of things to get attention - just to coin a quotable quote. It was, after all, his business to do so.

And to go along with his mischief for a moment, note that he is talking about males only - "He who can, does. He who cannot," etcetera - so I've met women who say his view is not instantly dismissable.

But after such fleeting entertainment, Mr Shaw's little dictum is wilfully obtuse. It has only the form of wit, not the content.

It deliberately ignores the idea that teaching is a genuinely creative activity. How else can you describe the leading of students to fountains of knowledge, let alone creating in them the motivation to drink? (Metaphorically-speaking, naturally.)

The truth is that people who are really effective as teachers - people who encourage others to learn - who draw them out, to go all the way back to the Latin root of the word education - are depressingly and distressingly rare.

Good teachers have distinct, stand-alone skills. These skills can happily be combined with expertise in a particular profession or discipline, but their core is not dependent on them.

I vividly remember two teachers. One was a rather boring and stodgy instructor who never lit us up with excitement or fired our imaginations, but who cared about every single pupil in the class - who took as much trouble over the slowest learner as the quickest - whose interest in our success was so evident that it put bad behaviour to shame.

The other was an ex-Colonel newly returned from World War Two, whose international viewpoint and experience challenged our small country-town assumptions and complacency. He treated 5th Formers as responsible adults, showed us how to organise a study programme, thrust us into accepting personal responsibility for our own success or failure. He was too, very well-informed, himself.

These personal reminiscences I mention simply to illustrate that there is more than one way of being a successful teacher.

All of you graduating today, so long as you really pursue excellence in your work, can make a life-long difference to your students. And although your careers will begin and develop in an environment of administrative change, it is not changes in our educational system that will make the biggest long-term difference, but your personal performance.

It never has been and never will be material resources that make the greatest difference in education, but intellectual, psychological, social and ethical resources instead. These include such individual qualities as warmth and understanding. Teachers, only a little less than parents, are the people who deliver educational success for everyone, or who settle for much less.

There is a reward: teaching can be one of the truly blessed occupations - there are very few things that most of us can do in life that can alter the future. How many things do we ever achieve, that allow us to say "Yes" to the question: "Will it make a difference in twenty years time?"

Only parents - children's first and most important teachers - you, their school teachers, and a very, very few other creative people, ever have the chance to influence for the better, people and events and outcomes two decades into the future.

But for an inspiring teacher, this could even be routine.

Reading biographies is a wonderful way to gain perspective on the world and to re-discover some of the original flavour of history.

Again and again in the accounts of the lives of notable people, you read about the influence of remembered teachers.

(Although of course - just to bring things back to earth again for a moment - this may not mean that such paragons are richly paid. However, I suggest that being of honest service to others still counts for every bit as much as mortgage-paying ability when everything is taken into account.)

One last point: seeking excellence or surrendering to mediocrity as teachers is now your professional responsibility.

This is what your graduation today should signal - that not only have you qualified as meeting a minimum academic standard, but that you profess an ideal. In your case, the ideal is that you will find a way to spark pupils' imaginations and then get out of the way of the resulting self-motivation.

In an era of social competition in the playground, distraction on TV and turmoil inside the family, I'll grant that this is definitely a calling, as well as being a job.

It will require hard effort, perhaps occasional - or even much - sacrifice. Your progress might be as inconsistent as your pupils.

But as a professional teacher, it is what you must shoot for, if only to be able to alter Mr Shaw's dictum and re-write it as: "Those who can, teach. Those who cannot, criticise."

The change will be worthwhile because you will then be able to remind people how Mr Shaw began his career: as a critic.

You graduands are all about to head in the more productive direction, I most sincerely hope.

Family members, I hope all of you are proud of your graduate today - as, I assure you, the rest of us are. Along with you, I warmly congratulate all 1992 graduands of the Wellington College of Education.

Good teaching; good company along the way; good health; good luck.

Last updated: 
Friday, 9 January 2009

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