I am giving a keynote address at a conference tomorrow. I was first approached by the conference organizers last summer when I was called – at work, in my office – and asked if I’d do a presentation at their conference in February on some of the gains we’d made in ESL. It was the first time that I said: “Sorry, I’ll have retired and be gone by next February but I’m sure someone else from the team would be happy to present“. I can still remember the feeling that I had when I said that: gone from the day-t0-day pressures, gone from having to say and do things that I didn’t really believe in, gone from meetings and more meetings and more meetings. There was also a moment of “Oh my God; I’ll never speak publically again” which was significant because, if you know me, you know that I love to speak.
It didn’t end there though. I received a personal e-mail at home that evening from the Peace and Diversity Through ESL conference organizer who asked if I’d do a keynote for them and talk about whatever I thought was important to kick-off their days together exploring how to best meet the needs of students they teach. What an incredible idea. Talk about what I actually think is most important. Amazing! This did, however, open up a whole new can of worms for me. What did I think was important enough to take up 50 minutes of time? What message did I think was worth disseminating? This became an even larger question in my mind when I thought about the reality that this might be the last time I’m asked to do a keynote. Better not blow it!
So, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time preparing my talk. With a little more than 24 hours to go I’m now on draft #157 I think (oops, no … I just made another change; make that draft #158). I’ve struggled over each word, each idea, each metaphor. I did decide fairly early on that I would not do a powerpoint presentation. Now you might not think that’s a major decision but in my world it’s been years since anyone talked without a back-up of “slides”. I have spent far too many years in environments that insisted that I take something complex and reduce it to two or three bullet points. No more of that for me. Instead, I’ve chosen to spend the time telling a story – my story – and highlighting some things I’ve learned along the way.
In An Outline of History, written nearly 100 years ago in 1920, H.G. Wells said that “human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe“. I have a fear – after nearly 30 years in education – that we’re not winning that race … and that’s what I’ll talk about. So far so good! Being a teacher, my talk will of course include “lessons”; things that I hope people will remember. Lessons like “If you don’t really care about your students – as people – you can’t teach them anything” or “Education is a conversation. It takes place over many years and with many participants, but in the end it is an ongoing, compelling, challenging conversation. If you leave students out of that conversation, you’re not educating them” and “It’s not enough to teach our children how to earn a living; we have to teach them how to live a life.”
I’m sitting here now with butterflies in my stomach (feels more like albatross really). Not long ago David and I read Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture. A blurb about the book states that: “A lot of professors give talks titled “The Last Lecture.” Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can’t help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy? When Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, was asked to give such a lecture, he didn’t have to imagine it as his last, since he had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. But the lecture he gave—“Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams”—wasn’t about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment (because “time is all you have…and you may find one day that you have less than you think”). It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. It was about living. ” With this as my new standard for speaking, how could I not be nervous about tomorrow.
I don’t want this to be my last lecture; not metaphorically and not in reality. But I wonder how many more times I’ll be asked to speak? I wonder how long it will be before I become disconnected enough from education to have little left to say? I wonder whether we slowly disappear in retirement and are forgotten?
It’s just after 6 a.m. and I’m going to do a practice run of the keynote for David so that I can get some audience feedback.
Meanwhile I’ll leave you here with Randy’s lecture; it’s worth listening to!