Last Saturday, June 30, 2012, I had the distinct honor of addressing the graduates of the University of Phoenix with the keynote graduation address. It was such an honor to address the the 2,500 in attendance and I would like to share my speech with you here:
Members of the University of Phoenix Class of 2012:
This experience, as your keynote graduation speaker, very much like my career in education was not a goal that I set out to accomplish. Instead, because of the collaboration of many others, has been just like my career in education – an incredible journey that I will value forever – a journey that has led me in front of you today.
There was no epiphany when I said, “I am going to be a teacher!”
There was no pressure from home to be a third generation educator. There was no epiphany where I said, “I am going to be Indiana’s Teacher of the Year or Principal of Emmerich Manual High School, one of Indiana’s first turnaround academies.”
What I had were fans, a supportive front line, and a great coaching staff. Let me explain why I use the football analogy here. I had the opportunity a few years ago to meet and visit with Terry Bradshaw, the storied quarterback for the Pittsburg Steelers. He told me a story that has turned into one of the greatest educational and leadership lessons I know. Here’s what he said, “Byron, I was standing on the four yard line ready to score a touchdown in my fourth Super Bowl win, knowing this would be my last game before my retirement. I took a timeout and did not go to the sideline but spun around and looked at all of the fans, I looked over at our bench and coaches, and then I looked at my offensive line who had given me so much protection and opened up holes for so many huge plays to happen, and finally I looked over at my running backs and receivers who always made me look good.” Byron, he continued, “I realized right then and there that my amazing professional football career was not about me. It was about something much bigger – all those others that I just spun around and looked to.”
Today for you, just like Terry Bradshaw’s experience, is much bigger than just you. In fact as much as today is about celebrating your personal achievement of graduation – it’s not all about you. It’s about having a strong support network that I know supported you in this process. You know who that support network is – it is the faculty, friends, and family – make sure you thank them. In fact I would like for you to stand right now and join me in giving that support network a hand.
Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to understand what I have said and continue to say about my educational experience and career – It is much bigger than me. Hopefully my journey of ending up in front of you today can serve as a platform for others to follow.
Why is this bigger than me? Let me share with you my story of how I even ended up in education. I became a teacher because a professor at Purdue University cared, and pulled me into his office for a conversation one day that would change my life forever. Dr. Hobe Jones, my Purdue University Animal Science professor and counselor, said, “Byron, have you ever considered a career in teaching?” After giving what was probably a Hannah Montana type response of “You say what?” He knew I had not considered this as an option. After I promptly told him I had come to Purdue in Animal Science, and was going to graduate on time (keep in mind this was the spring semester of my sophomore year) he said, “Byron you are a great student and I will make sure you graduate on time.” Reluctantly, I agreed to graduate from Purdue with two B.S. Degrees. One which I never thought I would use – Agricultural Education and the other in Animal Science. It is interesting that with the focus now on content area mastery, I look back and really value my Animal Science Degree because it gave me the extra content area mastery to succeed during the teaching part of my career. It is Dr. Jones’ caring guidance that I tried to emulate every day as a teacher and now as a principal of an inner city school.
Can you imagine if I would have had to plan out my life’s journey in exact detail at the time Dr. Jones was recommending I become a teacher? Why, I would have had that all screwed up. It’s about BEING PREPARED FOR WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW YOU NEED TO BE PREPARED FOR. Let me say that one more time – It’s about BEING PREPARED FOR WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW YOU NEED TO BE PREPARED FOR.
You have made the first step in achieving this by graduating in your chosen field of study today. But make no mistake, your diploma is not an award, it is a ticket – a ticket to an incredible journey of giving back and continued learning! As the late John Wooden put so eloquently, “Its what you learn after you know it all that counts!”
Let’s break that giving back down by first looking at the University of Phoenix Mission and Purpose: University of Phoenix provides access to higher education opportunities that enable students to develop knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their professional goals, improve the productivity of their organizations and provide leadership and service to their communities. Notice it did not say that the University of Phoenix would award you a diploma, and you could then go have a party!
I’m not saying that is not allowed, but I am saying we need to take a look at how you now live out the mission and purpose by which the University of Phoenix facilitated your education.
Let’s break this down into three parts. #1. Access to higher education opportunities that enable students to develop knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their professional goals. As you graduate, University of Phoenix has done their job for the first part of the mission and purpose, but only to the extent of your professional goals today. Realistically, those may change, or even be changed for you tomorrow. Again, remember what I said earlier, YOU MUST BE PREPARED FOR WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW YOU NEED TO BE PREPARED FOR! The beauty of this is you have been empowered with the foundational knowledge to become or continue to be a lifelong learner. My challenge to you is to never be satisfied! Continue to take on educational challenges. We all need to be pushed.
Let me share one of my favorite parables. It is about the King who stood upon the banks of a mighty river with his daughter, the princess. His courageous warriors stood on the opposing bank.
The king knew that he would not live forever and so he wanted a prince who could lead his kingdom. He issued a decree: “I am looking for a brave warrior, a leader among men!” A roar rose over the raging rapids of the mighty crocodile-infested river. “I have a challenge!” Whoever shall swim across this river shall have all my riches and my daughter’s hand in marriage or anything else his heart desires.” The princess was a beautiful and brilliant young woman; the king possessed untold riches in gold and diamonds; but there was that river – that raging, crocodile-infested river…
The warriors looked at one another, exchanged wary glances, and suddenly – splash! A hole appeared in their ranks. They noticed one of their own, a young warrior, in the river, fighting desperately to make the crossing. As the crocs slithered into the water, headed toward the young man, a collective shout sounded over both banks: the young man swam! His arms pumped, his back flexed, his legs churned the water like propellers. The roar grew louder as the young man disappeared into the undertow and emerged again – pursued by the razor-toothed, prehistoric-looking reptiles. With one last burst he catapulted out of the river and onto the bank, grasping the hand of the king himself, who’d reached down to pull the young man out of the river.
The young warrior stood for just a moment until, overcome with emotion and fatigue, his hands dropped to his knees. The king at that moment raised the young man’s hand high into the air. In a booming voice, he announced, “Young man, you made it. You succeeded against all odds. You may have all my riches and my daughter’s hand in marriage.”
The young man looked at the king and the warriors back on the distant bank before speaking. “Your highness,” he said, “you are a wealthy and benevolent man” – his chest heaved as he paused to catch his breath – “and your daughter is beautiful, indeed…” He hunched over and, now facing the cheering warriors he had left on the far bank, shouted: “All I want is the fool that pushed me into the water!”
You’ve been pushed. Now swim like your life depends on it!
Now let’s look at mission and purpose #2. Improve the productivity of their organizations. I believe that one of the most important functions of any institution, no matter what level – k-16 and beyond, is to teach students to learn to learn. I know this is how University of Phoenix empowers their learners. No matter where your career is now or will take you, you must practice learning to learn and the sharing of that knowledge in the truest sense of a learning organization.
In his book, Power: Why Some People Have It – And Others Don’t Jeffrey Pfeffer calls it “Feedforward,” which emphasizes what people need to do to get ready for the subsequent positions and career challenges they will confront…focusing on what you need to change to accomplish future personal goals can be much more uplifting than going back and reviewing past setbacks or considering areas of weakness.
Finally, #3. Provide leadership and service to their communities. This one is of the upmost importance. You all have an obligation to become agents of social change. In other words, set out to make a life – not just a living. When you make a living, you pay your bills. When you make a life, you pay your debt. We all have a debt to be an agent of social change.
Now I want to recap a couple of things. Don’t forget you must prepare for what you don’t know to be prepared for. Also you must learn to learn. And you must set out to make a life, not just a living. Make sure you are walking the talk and always remember you have the ability to at any time do what I call Byron’s three “R’s” of life: Retool, Reposition, and Re-Launch. By Retooling, Repositioning, and Re-launching, you become the lifelong learner that is always prepared for the next opportunity.
Why is this bigger than you and me? We must always remember that we are successful as leaders not due to solitary efforts, but due to organizational and collaborative success. I would like to close with a poem that I believe sums up everything I have been trying to say today:
Wreckers or Builders
I watched them tearing a building down,
A gang of men in a busy town.
With a ho-heave-ho and lusty yell,
They swung a beam and a sidewall fell.
I asked the foreman, “Are these men skilled,
As the men you’d hire if you had to build?”
He gave me a laugh and said, “No indeed!
Just common labor is all I need.
I can easily wreck in a day or two
What builders have taken a year to do.”
And I tho’t to myself as I went my way,
Which of these two roles have I tried to play?
Am I a builder who works with care,
Measuring life by the rule and square?
Am I shaping my deeds by a well-made plan,
Patiently doing the best I can?
Or am I a wrecker who walks the town,
Content with the labor of tearing down?
Thank you for allowing me to have this BIGGER THAN ME experience and be part of your graduation!
This past week I had the opportunity to speak to the faculty of University of Phoenix prior to delivering the keynote address for their graduation ceremony. I would like to share with you my notes from this speech here:
I would like to start today with an excerpt that I have done some creative editing on from Onward: How Starbucks fought for its life without losing its soul. I believe you will find that this comparison of teaching to a successful business model fits right in with what I consider my and my school’s ADVANTAGE: “Putting Students First.”
Here is the excerpt adapted from Onward:
Pouring espresso (Teaching) is an art, one that requires the barista (teacher) to care about the quality of the beverage (education). If the barista (teacher) only goes through the motions, if he or she does not care and produces an inferior espresso (student) that is too weak or too bitter (not ready to compete), then Starbucks (teaching) has lost the essence of what we set out to do 40 years ago (in 1635): inspire the human spirit. I realize this is a lofty mission for a cup of coffee (education), but this is what merchants (teachers) do. We take the ordinary – a shoe (boy), a knife (girl) – and give it (them) new life, believing that what we create has the potential to touch others’ lives because it (their lives) touched ours.
I believe this is such a great representation of what we all do in this room – EDUCATE. As Henry Adams put it, “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”
As a teacher my personal mission statement was, “I strive to use rigor, relevance and relationships to be a steward of high student achievement.” I have given a lot of thought about what my personal mission statement should not be as a principal, and then realized it really does not change. All I am doing is adding one new “R” – Results Driven.
Someone recently asked my to use a word to define myself. I chose “Trailblazer”
Goes before others go!
Don’t send someone where you are not willing to go yourself.
A “Trailblazer” is not a travel agent. Travel agents send people places they have never been. Trailblazer set the path for others to follow or even go down simultaneously with the leader.
We must follow Kouzes and Posner’s Ten Truths of Leadership:
- You make a difference
- Focusing on the future
- You can’t do it alone
- Trust rules
- Challenge is the crucible for greatness
- Lead by example
- The best leaders are the best learners
- Leadership is an affair of the heart
Remember, if better is even possible, good is not enough!