Cardona Urges Graduates to Revive Education Post-Pandemic

Anyone who has had the pleasure of attending a speech by Dr. Miguel Cardona knows what an inspiring and compelling speaker he is. As U.S. Secretary of Education, he speaks from the heart as a devoted advocate for the nation’s students and educators.

He was in top form again recently when he addressed the graduates at the annual commencement ceremony of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City.

Speaking about the state of the nation’s schools following the pandemic, he compared the education community to a wilted flower. And he urged the graduates to become master gardeners in reviving the nation’s schools.

Honoring Grandparents

First, though, he acknowledged the honor of receiving Columbia’s Medal for Distinguished Service.

“I accept this on behalf of Avelino and Maria Cardona, and Germana Muniz,” he said, “my grandparents who took a leap of faith and traded paradise for the projects, so their children and grandchildren could have a better life. This award is theirs.”

Great Message from a Great Educator

I’m pleased to share these excerpts from Secretary Cardona’s speech. It’s a great message from a great educator. Since we honored Miguel with our scholarship in 1998, he has served as an inspiring leader as a teacher, principal, district administrator, state commissioner, and now as our nation’s premier educational leader. All who support the Alma Exley Scholarship Program are proud of Secretary Cardona and wish him well on his journey in education in the years ahead.

The Best Profession

Secretary Cardona told the graduates they were joining or advancing in the best profession at a time when they are needed the most.

“I gotta be honest,” he said. “I get inspiration for learning from all different places…even music. In fact, there is a New Yorker whose musical catalog is a soundtrack to my journey in education. Anyone ever hear of Marc Anthony?

“Well, he sang a song that, to me, is the perfect metaphor to the role of education in this country at this time. The song is Flor Pálida, which translates to wilted flower.

Education Has Become Like a Wilted Flower

“After the pandemic, education was a Flor Pálida: a flower wilting under a storm like no other.

“Marchita y desojada, casi pálida, ahogada en un suspiro.” It was gasping for air, wilted and missing its vibrant petals.

“Like the learning of our young people, it was severely disrupted.

“Mental health needs escalated.

“Academic levels hit the lowest marks in decades.

“And opportunists who stand to benefit from framing public education as a dead end created culture wars to divide school communities in order to privatize public education—the great equalizer.

“Yes, education emerged from the pandemic as a Flor Pálida.

Educators Must Become Master Gardeners

“The thing is, graduates, to recover the strength, vibrancy, and beauty of a wilted rose, you need master gardeners.

“If our education system is the wilted rose in a garden, you are the master gardeners who will bring our garden back to life.

“You are the master gardeners whose efforts will lead to a garden of beautifully diverse flowers that will continue to grow and bring hope to this country and this world.

“The song says, toward the end, ‘Recuperó el color que había perdido porque encontró un cuidador que la regara.’

“It recovered its beauty and color because it found someone to water it.

“De aquella flor, hoy el dueno soy yo!”

“Meaning, I now am responsible for that flower.

“We now are responsible for education.

Confident in the Future

“And with the master gardeners here, whether you enter the classroom, non-profit, or administrative positions, I am confident in the future of our 65 million students in America.

“So as you go forward on your journey, Teachers College degree in hand, I encourage you to muster your will in three big ways.

Passion, Not Position

“First: keep the will to chase your passion, not position.

“Look, I know how tempting it is to see your end goal as a particular job. 

“But if you wait for the position you want to demonstrate the will we need, you might miss an opportunity to make a difference for students–here and now.

“I have the same passion today to serve my students, close achievement gaps, and give them every opportunity to succeed, as I did when I was a 21-year-old fourth-grade teacher with 23 students. Today, the scope is just greater. My passion never changed.

Prioritize Systems, Not Superheroes

“The second area where we need your willpower in education is in the will to prioritize systems, not superheroes.

“I’m sure your studies here at Teachers College have shown you: there are pockets of excellence all over this country. Name any state, and you can find a superhero principal or an all-star superintendent doing incredible things.

“With your Teachers College training, you might well become the next superheroes in education. I hope you will.

“But let’s also be clear: what we need to focus on is building systems, not superheroes. Our goal is to have the improvements we bring to education outlast us in our current roles.

“So if it’s working, sustain it. If it’s broken, reimagine it. And if it doesn’t exist, build it.

“Remember: investing in our children is no different than investing in defense–both protect our tomorrow. We can’t do that without systems that last.

Teach Kids, Not Curriculum

“That brings me to my final piece of advice about how we apply our will in education.

“It came from a special education teacher in Connecticut, Rindy Hardy.

“At the time, I was just 21, and I was getting ready to leave after finishing as a student teacher. This was back in the 1900s.

“At my farewell party, she pulled me aside and said,“Miguel, never forget – you teach kids, not curriculum.”

“I think it was her way of warning me: you’re gonna get overwhelmed with the requirements of the curriculum. All the paperwork. All the rules. All the mandates from the central office.

“But you can’t lose sight of what this is really all about: working for children. Working for families. Working for people.

“Education is a people business.

Focus on Improving the Lives of Students

“See, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how many degrees you have.

“It doesn’t matter what letters you have after your name.

“It doesn’t even matter if you know how to write policy.  

“What matters is if you are able to use your God-given gifts to improve the lives of the students you serve. If you do, you will always be happy.

“Passion, not position. Systems, not superheroes. Kids, not curriculum. Imagine what’s possible when you put the full force of your will behind each of those priorities.

“Now more than ever, we need your courageous leadership in education.

“That means breaking the mold. It means challenging the status quo. It means being willing to get a little uncomfortable for your beliefs.

“If your bold ideas and leadership are not making some people uncomfortable, you are not pushing hard enough.

“Today, as you embark on the next phase of your journey in education, one where you serve as master gardeners responsible for cultivating a beautiful garden of learners, you will use what you learned at Teachers College to make a difference for children, and for our country.

“With you as master gardeners—our country is in good hands. Congratulations again to the Class of 2023, and thank you!”

Click here to read the entire speech.

  • Woody Exley