Skip to main content

Elizabeth Fitzgerald

I am so honored to be here today to help you celebrate your success. It has been almost 30 years since I graduated with my undergraduate degree from the University of Missouri - St. Louis. The campus was so new that the administrative offices were still located in the clubhouse of the original country club grounds. I graduated with a degree in elementary and early childhood education, never imagining that someday I would be the one giving a commencement speech. And, never imagining where life would take me and the life lessons I would learn along the way.

My dream since I was very young was to teach. When I was a child, I am sure like many of you, I played school all the time. My poor younger sister and brothers always had to be the students. We still joke about my brother, a big athlete, being forced to be in a dance recital the summer I had my own dancing school.

Unfortunately, the year I graduated in the late 70's, the country was experiencing record inflation. Not only were school districts not hiring new teachers, they were laying off non-tenured teachers. I had an offer to teach in a small parochial school in the Soulard neighborhood making $7000 a year. It was a 12 month contract and I had to teach Sunday School too, but I felt lucky to have the offer.

Then I was presented with a difficult choice. While in college I had worked as the summer camp director at Queeny Park. When I graduated, St. Louis County offered me the opportunity to be the supervisor for all the programs at Queeny Park - making a whopping $10,500 - a lot of money in those days for a young female graduate. It was a tough decision because I knew I was at a fork in the road and if I accepted the position, I would have a future much different than I had envisioned.  I ultimately chose Queeny, basically because as many of you understand, I was supporting myself at the time! And while I have never regretted my decision, I have often thought about what my life would have been like if I made the other choice. I have always felt like I have lived out Robert Frost's poem "the Road Not Taken."

"I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by 
And that has made all the difference.

If I had not taken the position at Queeny, I would never been contacted in 1979 by the founders of The Magic House to become the executive director of their new children's museum. I would have never met my husband. And I am pretty certain I would not be here today. It is interesting when looking back, how there appears to be a plan for us in life.

So while I never worked in a traditional classroom like I had planned, I have been truly fortunate to have worked with children my whole career. When I left UMSL, I felt very prepared for a career in education. I had defined my philosophy of education to be "to instill in my students the intrinsic desire to become lifelong learners" - a philosophy I still aspire to in my work on the Rockwood School Board where I have served for 7 years and at The Magic House where I have worked now for 26 years. What I have discovered is that one of the benefits of working with children is that you truly are a lifelong learner, learning with them as they grow. As John Dewey said, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself."

Children continue to be an inspiration to me every day. As Fred Rogers shared, "Those of us who are in this world to educate - to care for - young children have a special calling: a calling that has little to do with the collection of expensive possessions but has a lot to do with the worth inside of heads and hearts." As I have learned from serving on the Rockwood School Board and from having a daughter myself who is just completing her second year of teaching first grade (giving me a chance to live vicariously through her), teachers truly dedicate themselves to a life of self-sacrifice on behalf of their students and I commend all of you for your understanding that being a teacher is a noble and rewarding profession.

In my work, I still consider myself primarily an educator and have strived to continue to grow in my understanding of the learning process. I was fortunate some years ago to be part of a study tour to Reggio Emilia, Italy to experience their early childhood program. There philosophy of education affected me profoundly. They have intense respect for children. They believe that young children are very capable learners who have the ability to research sophisticated content in-depth. They see children not as vessels to be filled by adults, but as strong competent learners who construct their own knowledge. They see teachers as facilitators and researchers. And they see parents as true partners in the learning process. They spend a great deal of time thinking about how their classroom environment can be a community and how their classrooms can be places of great design and beauty. While not able to use this philosophy in a classroom, I have strived to instill those principles in The Magic House.

Being open to the world around you is important in being a lifelong learner. It is amazing just how much you learn once you leave school. In fact, a world renown museum researcher recently shared that "90% of all learning happens outside the classroom," something to remember when thinking about your own life and what your students bring to the classroom. 

Some learning opportunities come in unexpected places. Several years ago when my son was confirmed, our pastor told a parable that had a dramatic effect on the way I think about children and learning. While I hate to use the phrase paradigm shift, I have to say it did have that kind of effect on me - and I thought I would share that story with you today. The parable goes like this:

Once upon a time, a group of animals decided that their children should go to school. They held a meeting and after much thought and research decided on the curriculum. The curriculum would consist of running, swimming, climbing and flying since those were the skills of most animals and they decided that the students needed to be well-rounded, so all students would take all subjects,

The duck parents were so proud of their duckling. At a very young age he had exhibited swimming skills much beyond their expectations. He loved swimming and would spend much time practicing his paddling and diving, but enjoyed learning to fly as well. The same was true of the squirrel parents who felt their daughter was a gifted climber and runner.

So at school the duck proved to be excellent at swimming, also did well in flying, but he proved to be very poor in running. Since he was poor in this subject, he had to spend extra time in school and out practicing his running. It became necessary to drop his swim club to have more time to practice running. He kept practicing until his webbed feet were so badly damaged that he became only average at swimming.

The squirrel was excellent in climbing but had a terrible time with flying when the teacher insisted that she start from the ground instead of from the trees which felt more natural for her. She kept trying until her muscles became so sore, she could no longer climb trees easily.

And so it went for the rest of the animals with the eagle being the school's worst discipline problem who would beat all the students to the top of the tree, but insisted on using his own method of getting there.

The message from the parable is powerful. It reminds us as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "The secret of education lies in respecting the student" and as Erich Fromm wrote, "That education is helping each child reach his potential."  We each need to find a way for every child to be respected for their strengths and ensure that we identify those strengths early so that school can be associated with success.

I very recently received a pamphlet that had a great little message on how we can make our schools a success - and I thought I might share it because it simply states what we all need to remember when working with students. And it goes like this spelling success:

S is show you care by treating children with respect
U is use every opportunity to guide and inspire students
C is for curiosity by providing learning opportunities that engage children's
natural interest
C is for collaboration between students, parents and teacher
E is express your praise to students for their good work and good 
S is for share your enthusiasm for learning new things
S is for spark the imagination of children by providing them with creative

Teaching and working with children, unlike so many other professions, creates a wonderful legacy. We are truly fortunate knowing that our work really does impact the future. Working with children is one of the most important jobs in the world and contributions by educators shape the future of our world. The hard work of teachers pays off not in dividends but in students' knowledge, character and hard work.

My son is just finishing a class in high school where the whole semester was devoted to deeply researching a topic of the student's choice. A wonderful opportunity to really promote lifelong learning.  He has spent it researching John F. Kennedy and since this semester has also been a great learning experience for me as he shared what he has learned, I felt it appropriate to end this with an eloquent quote from John F. Kennedy:

"Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into a benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation."

Congratulations and Good luck! I wish for you an intrinsic desire to learn throughout your life!