Carmen Fariña Commencement Address St. Johns University School of Education

  • Posted: Tue May 17, 2016 Updated: Fri Apr 20, 2018

Congratulations, class of 2016!

Good evening.

Thank you, Dean Sampson.

I would also like to thank members of the Board of Trustees, Mr. Paul Carroll and Dr. Peggy Murrain; St. Johns’ President, Dr. “Bobby” Gempesaw; and Provost, Dr. Robert Mangione.

And my heartfelt congratulations to the St. Johns University School of Education’s Class of 2016—and to your proud parents and families.

I stand before you a passionate, lifelong educator. I truly believe that there is no higher calling than helping children reach their potential. No other line of work offers someone the unlimited ability to change a child’s life, a family’s life, a community’s life.

That’s a responsibility I have never taken lightly.

I know you are on the cusp of your careers. Whether you become teachers, principals, administrators, or policymakers, I guarantee that you will succeed so long as you remember the reason you entered this field.

Let me tell you a little about how I came to this profession.

I was in my sophomore year in high school when I decided to become a teacher. You can imagine my surprise when I learned I was on a non-academic track. Instead of taking advanced math and other credit-bearing courses, I was taking typing and stenography, in preparation for a much different life than the one I imagined for myself. My advisor had apparently decided that the daughter of Spanish immigrants lacked the aptitude and wherewithal to attend college.

An outstanding teacher changed the trajectory of my life. Her name was Sister Leonard, and she helped me catch up on the math classes I’d missed and take the Spanish Regents exam. Like some of you here today, I became the first person in my family to graduate from college.

I began my career as a teacher at P.S. 29 in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. This school served predominantly Hispanic students but was slowly gentrifying.

My work there was guided by my convictions that every family and child deserve respect. That all students should be on an academic path. And every educator has the responsibility to do whatever it takes to help that child turn her dreams into reality.

As a teacher, I gave it my all. My classes were always full of boisterous discussion, and my students were critical thinkers and excelled.

After more than two decades in the classroom, in 1991 I accepted an offer to become the Principal of P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side.

My aim was straight forward: My staff and I were going to turn a good school into a great school. And we were going to do that by building community. By getting to know our students and families, and making every effort to meet their needs.

Over the course of my career, whether supervising students, teachers, principals, or an entire school system, I have worked to forge a personal connection, identify individuals’ strengths and weaknesses, and connect them to the support they needed.

For those of you aspiring to higher levels of school leadership or areas of counseling, please understand that it’s your everyday work and track record on your way up the ladder that will lead to your success.

As graduates of the St. Johns School of Education, I have no doubt that you will inspire transformational change. This school has an outstanding reputation for producing high-quality teachers and counselors who stay in the field longer. The most recent data your school shared with me shows 94 percent of St. Johns graduates still teaching in New York City public schools after three years, versus 80 percent of teachers overall.

That’s phenomenal. This kind of commitment is essential for improving learning and student achievement.

St. Johns graduates are also known for building supportive school communities; the School of Education itself has a long history of supporting New York City’s public schools.

I want to take a moment to mention your former Dean of Education, Dr. Jerrold Ross. Many schools of education have ivory tower mentalities; people preach but don’t teach. Dr. Ross was quite different.

When I was a deputy chancellor, I remember visiting a school in Queens that was having serious problems retaining teachers. I spoke to Dr. Ross and he immediately offered to help.

He hosted a couple of summer retreats to involve teachers, the new principal, and university faculty in collaborative problem solving. It worked!

Today that school, P.S./I.S. 217, is one of the outstanding middle schools in the City—and Dean Sampson is continuing to forge partnerships with New York City schools.

I have returned to St. Johns with requests and suggestions over the years and always found your community ready to listen, innovate, and implement.

I hope all of you take great pride in graduating from a program that sets the highest standards, that promotes intellectual curiosity, and prepares students for the real work of schools—whether that is in a special education or dual language setting, a gifted and talented program, or in counseling.

I also hope that the thing you most carry with you as St. Johns graduates is a sense of community. Cherish the nurturing years you have spent here and your relationships with your fellow students and professors.

Emulate their passion as you become leaders in the New York City school system.

Please support the Equity and Excellence initiatives Mayor de Blasio announced at the beginning of the school year to raise student achievement across all of our public schools.

Participate in our Learning Partners and Showcase Schools programs to share strong practices and encourage greater collaboration across schools.

Promote arts partnerships that enable students to take advantage of rich learning opportunities.

Support us in creating inclusive, safe, and supportive environments for our students and their families.

However you use your degree, commit to being the best you can be every day and remember that nothing is more important—or rewarding—than helping young people pursue the futures they imagine for themselves.

Together, we can ensure that our students become productive citizens, prepared to contribute to our democracy.

Thank you for making education your calling. I hope to see many of you as I visit our schools.

Congratulations, class of 2016!

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