As graduation scenes play out across the country, I find myself thinking about the commencement ceremony for my own institution, scheduled for this evening. Faculty and students alike will don our caps and gowns, squeezing into the creaky chairs assembled into tight rows in the expanded meeting rooms in the campus building that is nestled in a greening forest preserve. We will be excited for and proud of our students, and all of us will be hoping for a riveting commencement address as we battle the vacuum-sealed heat of the academic regalia.
The more important ceremony, though, took place last week-end. Our department holds an annual graduation party for the students who have completed their practicum experience and associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education. A local restaurant has been the annual locale for this quiet gathering. We reserve a small party room, and the students decorate the space, often to reflect a chosen theme.
I’d arrived early to assist my faculty partner and the students with last-minute preparations. Upon entering the room I nearly collided with a student who was dashing through the doorway with streamers in her arms. I’d hardly recognized her. First, she was as tall as I, though in my class with her semesters ago I’d recalled her as a rather petite young woman. Stepping back, I took in the view. This student, and the other nine there, were clothed in elegant dresses or skirts, towering in fashionable heels that I could only dream of wearing without crashing to the floor. They were lovely. They had chosen the theme “dress to impress” for this year’s party — and were fully embracing it.
Memories of having each of them in class or sitting with them in my office for advising sessions immediately crowded my mind. Specific recollections of individual struggles and triumphs poured in.
“We’ll be right back,” said the student I’d bumped into a moment earlier. “We’re going downstairs to take a picture of everyone.” And just like that the room went quiet.
This annual gathering, while small, is as significant for our graduates as any other culminating experience. I’d suggest that it is more meaningful than the grand ceremony they will attend this evening. Its intimate nature lends a direct focus to their work and their choice of profession – but more importantly, it celebrates the relationships students have developed over the course of nearly nine months as they have spent time in classrooms with young children and experienced teachers. The teachers who mentored them during their student-teaching experiences and the faculty with whom they took classes are there to celebrate with them.
Each year I am struck by students’ individual journeys through this process. Some of them complete their degree in a little over two years, though many take several years to do so, as they struggle to balance school, work, and family life — in addition to the inevitable challenges and life events that can interrupt studies. That is perhaps the greatest battle: to stay in school while responding to so many demands and forces pulling at you.
This year’s graduates made it to this point despite many odds. Collectively they speak English, Russian, Spanish, Polish, Arabic, and Tagalog. Half of them re-settled in the United States after growing up in other countries. Three have had previous higher education. One is raising two small children. Two have had family child care businesses, and one closed hers to devote this year to her practicum experience.
So the “dress to impress” theme was not so much about fancy outfits. I don’t believe this group of students is especially different from previous graduates, but I will say that they seem to have bought into the idea that they have indeed chosen a career — not a job. They have a respect for their growing knowledge base, which is critical to their career identity. They will need that to sustain them as they venture forth into the world of teaching very young children, because broader American culture has not yet embraced the work as truly valuable.
Moments later the students returned, speaking in hushed voices and putting the finishing touches on the decorations as guests began filing in. Eventually everyone settled down to the usual chatty dinner.
What follows dinner each year is really the best part.
After I welcome everyone, the faculty supervisor, who leads the practicum seminar and has spent countless hours all year observing the students and, in her nurturing way, mentoring them — introduces the supervising teachers, one by one, as we applaud and their students present them with a gift.
The highlight of the evening is when each student stands before the group, flanked by the teachers who supervised her during her fall and spring practicum experiences. Both teachers say a few words about the student and what they admire about her. Call me mushy, but this is simply a wonderful sight. Teachers share compliments, anecdotes, funny stories, and children’s memories (including their wonder about why the students are no longer with them). The teachers at one of our campuses have begun an annual tradition in which they write a poem to their students to capture the supervising experience. This friendly competition in which they quietly evaluate each others’ rhymes is another delightful manifestation of the regard they have for their students and their journey.
This is where the tears flow, too, of course. It is at this moment, possibly, that the months and years of study and sacrifice are crystallized. Students realize now that they’ve made it. This is just the beginning, though, of their life-long venture in self-knowledge. They will continue to figure out what they’re made of as they make their way into their own classrooms in the coming weeks.
I would argue that our students may never have an experience similar to this one for the duration of their professional lives. I am often challenged by colleagues regarding the requirement that our students complete two semesters of student-teaching. This aspect of the degree is indeed its most challenging, but it is its greatest strength as well. A year of working under the tutelage of an experienced teacher is incomparable to the typical student-teaching experiences pre-service teachers undergo. Most are rushed through ten-week stints and then thrown into classrooms ill-prepared to deal to carry out group management or deal with the diverse educational, let alone social and emotional, needs of their children.
Following the student tributes, the faculty and supervising teachers sing a piggy-back song to the students to commemorate their time in practicum. It is always a hoot, and they roar as we warble to them about lesson-plans, case studies, take-over projects, and developmental theory.
This year, the students followed that song with a line dance. Picture 25+ people filling every square inch of free space in a small meeting room, bobbing and weaving and laughing as they do their best to master the steps without knocking over drinks or each other.
And at the end of the evening, when most of the guests had departed, the students crowded together at one end of the room, calling to their faculty supervisor. As she approached, they parted to display a giant framed photograph of themselves — taken right before the party when they had quickly run downstairs. The magic of technology was in action as the evening unfolded. What a great trick they’d pulled off. Their supervisor was completely choked up, of course.
I thought about that photograph, and how it froze this moment in time for these students: the happiness of accomplishment, the pride of a job well done, the connections of friendships, and the sense of hope that a new career brings. I wonder what they might think when they look at that photograph five years from now … or ten … or twenty. What might it symbolize? What will they tell themselves when they look back at this moment?
It’s my hope that they will still be in the profession, that they will be stimulated by their work, still contributing to the field, and still motivated by the impact their work has on very young lives.
But for now: commence.
You go, girls.