Inspiration From Dr. Don Shalvey

May 17, 2012

This past weekend I was in LA at USC for my graduation from the Master’s program – Go Trojans! I wanted to share the inspiring Commencement speech from alumni Dr. Don Shalvey. He formed the first charter school in California, and is currently overseeing the Bill and Melinda Gates Education Foundation. Enjoy!

Here is the transcribed version (from USC Rossier):

Good morning Graduates, Parents, Guests and Faculty. When Dean Gallagher invited me to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple talk that was “direct, compelling, honest, passionate, humorous, shivering, and graceful.” No pressure there…and in addition to keep it short.

In a sensible world I would now congratulate our graduates and sit down without further comment. I’m sure the graduates wish I would do so. Unfortunately for the Class of 2012 we do not live in a sensible world. “We live in a world far more interested in ancient custom than we like to admit. And ancient commencement day custom demands that somebody stand up here and talk until graduates beg for mercy. The ancient rule has been: make them suffer…one last time.

“Luckily, the forces of mercy have made big gains since then. The Dean suggested that for me to speak longer than 15 minutes would be regarded as cruel and inhuman punishment and that if I go as long as 20 minutes several strong men will mount this platform and forcibly remove me. But if I can finish in 15 minutes – 15 minutes! – they will let me stay for dinner. “So if I can do this right, you’ll see the back of me before we get to minute 16. But to do it I had to make this a No Frills Speech. This means fewer adjectives, no references to the graduates accomplishments and no jokes. So those of you who came just for the jokes might as well leave now.

Today I want to tell you a story, some lessons from my life and one piece of advice. That’s it. No big deal. The story is about the value naiveté can play in our lives. Turn the clock back to my college graduation. The year was 1966. Graduates that year were listening to Cream, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Buffalo Springfield. It was the pre-cable, pre ESPN days and the summer of love was straight ahead. It was the “if you’re going to San Francisco, wear some flowers in your hair” days. The only thing I knew was that I wanted to go to San Francisco and hang out with my 2 cousins who just became airline stewards for United and TWA and both were recently stationed in San Francisco, living in San Mateo. Along comes a very smart assistant superintendent who recruited me to come to Merced. The map he handed me had Merced very close to SFO and when I asked him if Merced was a suburb, he mumbled something about how close it was. I did the right thing and immediately called my cousins who said “Merced, we just got here. Let us check and we’ll get back to you.” Twenty minutes later they called back and said…”Take the job, it’s right here!!” And with that my journey to California began. Two months later when I arrived in SFO and we went looking for Merced did my cousins realize that they discovered Lake Merced rather than the “dusty whistle stop on the way to Yosemite” and I ventured 132 miles away to begin my career….and I’ve been Californian ever since.

California, Central California to be specific. It’s where I learned to teach, to lead as a principal and superintendent and to understand the value of entrepreneurship in education. Teaching and the calling of education is to me the most noble and dignifying of professions. It allows us to offer ourselves in service to the one endeavor that can change the opportunity equation for so many others. It’s the place where one’s dreams are realized through celebrating others who have had their aspirations met through their interactions with us.

In the profession of education attitude and outlook are everything. Consider Elliot Garfield’s response in Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl. Elliott reached a point of frustration with his situation and lamented, “There’s only one thing worse than a hopeless romantic…and that’s a hopeful one.” And now almost 50 years since that Summer of Love I remain a hopeful romantic about the role education can make in the lives of youth.

That’s what all of us have in common. We’ve found California and education and I for one love some of what’s here and see endless possibilities to change the things I don’t. Consider that 80% or more of you will stay in California then you, like me, are in it for the long haul.

So let’s get down to business. Working for the betterment of the California through helping its youth reach their aspirations is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.” There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case Dean Gallagher didn’t tell you about or if you didn’t didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are brilliant. You’ve experienced early success and California needs help.

Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of transforming California’s education system isn’t possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by naysayers. Find the other hopeful romantics who see a future

Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you’re finished. At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation we live by the value that “to those who receive much, much is expected.” You have received so much. You have a degree from one of the nation’s finest institutions of higher education. You’ve been prepared to make a difference in a place and profession where a USC parchment brings credibility, confidence and a network of professionals who applaud your work.

You have received more than most already…consider paying it forward. Naiveté brought me to the central valley and as a result, I feel in love with the geography and the people. I met and married a valley girl and owe most of my personal and professional successes to being open to the treasures naiveté can unpack. Here’s A Few Lessons I’ve Learned since my graduation…

Lesson 1…Experience disappointment and disillusionment early in your career. I’ve spent the past 15 years working side by side with some of the brightest idealists on the planet. In some ways I provide adult supervision for the 24 to 32 set. I watch them experience the first time their idea wasn’t accepted and the shock they exhibit. Disappointment gives you wisdom. Wisdom is like frequent-flyer miles and scar tissue; it does accumulate, and often by accident while you’re trying to do something else. And wisdom is what people will start wanting from you sooner than you normally have enough of it.

Lesson 2…Make excellent mistakes. Work for someone who will let you fail so you’ll learn to embrace the learning that only comes from failure. Then when you seek your next job, celebrate those failures. CEO and Superintendents love people who have learned through failure on somebody else’s payroll.

Lesson 3… A Great Workplace isn’t fancy technology, lattes, health care, sushi lunches, nice offices or big compensation, but rather it’s STUNNING COLLEAGUES. The day care and the lattes are done only if they are efficient at attracting stunning colleagues. My belief is that you are a stunning colleague and don’t work for a place who doesn’t have an abundance of you and when you hire commit to hiring only colleagues you find stunning.

Lesson 4…Remember either you’re NETWORKING or you’re not working. Everyone you meet offers lessons in life, insight and endless possibilities.

Lesson 5… Don’t Wait for Superman…or Wonder Woman…or Spiderman… or all The Avengers for that matter…believe in the power of Local Heroes like your parents, neighbors, coaches, farmers and the like…those who are humble, mindful and unsung… and be one yourself.

Lesson 6…When given the choice of doing well or doing good…choose doing good.

Lesson 7… People will tell you to make a plan, get a plan, have someone help you design a plan…take it from me…There Is No Plan…what you have is a chance to dictate directionality…where you’re headed…and the best COMPASS I know is your heart…trust the direction your heart sends you…take a pass on the plan.

And finally some advice. Do What You Love and Earn What You Need and Take A Few Big Risks The job I’ve chose back in the 1960s was teaching…a profession that to me has and will always be one of dignity. When people asked me what I do or what I make I respond proudly. I make kids wonder, I make them question, I make them volunteer, I make them apologize and mean it. I make them understand that if you have the brains, then follow your heart. And if someone ever tries to judge you by what you make in money, you pay them no attention.”

Then in my 50s after 30 plus years as a traditional educator I took a risk and created the first charter school in California and the second in the nation. In those days creating a competitive public school system was considered outrageous and an act of heresy. Soon thereafter a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and I founded the first charter school management organization in the country and now 11 years and 25 schools later it is arguably the highest performing school organization in the country serving traditionally low income youth. We did it because it became clear to me that the educational opportunities in Palo Alto, Marin County, Malibu and Beverly Hills were far greater than those in Oakland, East Palo Alto and Stockton.

It was clear to us that in the same way Federal Express made the US Postal System better, competitive school choice would do the same and brighten futures. After all, there has always been school choice because if you could afford to live wherever you want then you choose to buy a home in a good school system or a neighborhood with a good school. To me that just seems fundamentally unfair and now we’re beginning to see choice available for everyone.

That’s my wish for you…that each and every one of you creates purposeful disruption…that you become impatient optimists. The kids in this country need you. You entered USC willing to be a difference maker and today you leave ABLE to make that difference you talked about in your classroom work.

Education is the great equalizer in this country and the more of us who have a great education then the more civil and caring a populace we can be. You can contribute to that goal.

Final words…John Lennon was right when he said “Think Globally and Act Locally”…California can be a Lighthouse for education and the economy…and the human spirit.

To whom much has been given much is expected…accept that responsibility.

Take big risks, make big bets, act with urgency and be in it for the long haul… and to end with a Mark Twain quote…

Always work like you don’t need the money.
Always fall in love like you’ve never been hurt.
Always dance like nobody is watching.
And always — always — live like it’s heaven on earth.

- Dr. Don Shalvey