2009 UMC Exemplary Teacher Speech


Autograph Your Work with Excellence

Dr. Janet Wicker

2009 United Methodist Church Exemplary Teacher Award Recipient


I have thought a great deal about what I could say to you today that you haven’t already heard from someone at sometime in your life. I began writing this multiple times only to change my mind about the direction since I had so many different ideas. I was afraid I would just have to say, “Well you’ve heard it all or think you have and there really isn’t anymore I can add.” Which I am sure would have pleased you, but since the president, provost and my chair are staring at my back right now I didn’t think that would work too well. So good news! I came up with a plan. I began thinking about what words of wisdom or encouragement your family, friends and acquaintances might give you as you move from one phase of your life to another.

When I was in grade school the popular thing to do was to have an autograph book and have all of your friends sign it with a witty saying or tell you how much you meant to them.  So, I decided that since the thing to do now is retro, I’d like to take just a few moments to think about some things that your grandparents, parents, friends and teachers might write in your autograph book to acknowledge your successes and encourage you as you move into the next phase of your chosen field whether it be the work force or continuing your education. So, let’s take a moment to look at your autograph book.

As we open the cover of your book we see the inscription from your grandparents: “There are three kinds of people in the world; those who make things happen, those who watch things happen and those who wonder what happened.” Which will you be? This quote attributed to Socrates is an interesting opening to your autograph book as is the question asked by your grandparents; Which will you be? Someone who makes things happen, watches things happen or wonders what happened. Simply asking the question implies that your grandparents now see you as an adult capable of making adult decisions, but still want to let you know that all decisions aren’t going to be easy which as they say is the voice of experience. As you contemplate the type of person you wish to become remember and listen to the voices of experience that are around you in the work place or graduate school. I don’t mean to imply that all voices should be heeded equally or for the same reasons. That is why your grandparents didn’t tell you what kind of person to be they left the decision up to you and so will I.

Let’s turn to the next page of your book where we find your father’s quick note about not having to write tuition checks anymore and a quote from Albert Einstein which reads: “Try not to become a man or woman of success but rather to become a man or woman of value.” Wow, does dad not want you to become a success? Of course he does, but he doesn’t want you to be defined by your success rather you should be identified by your value. I found the word value in both the dictionary and thesaurus. Both resources used the word esteem as one of the first entries. Esteem is defined as “To regard with respect.” Respect is not a given it is earned through hard work and caring for your fellow humans. Value and respect are words used frequently in schools today to assist students in character building. Only you can define your value and what you stand for. Your father is telling you to never compromise your values because that is the easy way out. There may be times when you have to stand up for what you believe in even if you are standing alone.

As we turn to the third page we see your mother’s lovely script and a quote from her favorite musical talent, Beverly Sills which says “ You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don't try.” What’s the old saying try try again? Are you going to have disappointments and failures in your life? Of course you are and your mother understands that, but she also knows that the only real tragedy is not trying at all. Trying and failing is one thing, but not trying at all because it is something you have never tried before or is difficult means you have already failed. You have to try things that are not only easy and comfortable, but those that may be difficult and may cause you to pursue a direction that is unfamiliar whether in the work force or graduate school. Only then will you truly know your potential to lead you forward in the pursuit of your ultimate goals in life. As Eleanor Roosevelt so eloquently said, “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do.”

On the fourth page we see the inscription of your favorite teacher who always let you know he or she believed in you and your future. This teacher has quoted John Maxwell by writing, “ The pessimist complains about the wind. The optimist expects it to change. The leader adjusts the sails.” This fits right in with what your grandparents and parents have written about what kind of person you will be doesn’t it? I’ve heard of the half full/half empty glass analogy, but this takes that one step further. Do you notice how this doesn’t say the leader asks someone to fix the sails or the leader doesn’t just man-handle the sails into submission? The leader adjusts the sails. It’s not a forceful action, but one intended to set the sails in harmony with the wind that carries the ship. Be that kind of leader in whatever you do.  As John Quincy Adams once said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”

As we turn to the next page we see that even Dr. Dennis has autographed your book with one of his famous pieces of advice to first year students, “Don’t speed in Lebanon!” Actually, to first year students he is giving sage advice since we all know, at least I do from personal experience, Lebanon police are very watchful of the speed limits. Why would Dr. Dennis repeat this advice now when you are about to graduate and move on with your life? Let’s face it; most of you will not live in Lebanon for the rest of your lives. Another term for obeying the speed limits is honesty. Be honest in your future career taking credit for things you do well, but also accepting responsibility for things that fall short of the mark. I think Shakespeare said it best when he stated, “Honesty is the best policy. If I lose mine honor, I lose myself.” Traditional legend says that Abraham Lincoln walked all night in bad weather to return two cents that were over charged at the general store. In reality, the two cents were overcharged at a toll that was collected from the grist mill operation. Wherever the overcharge happened, the point is that Lincoln saw the need to be honest even over two cents. That is the kind of person you should strive to be. Honest enough to tell the truth regardless of the reason or personal sacrifice.

Someone else has added the final piece in this section of your autograph book and I will leave that person up to you. The quote written here is from Henry Van Dyke and it reads, “There is a loftier ambition than merely to stand high in the world. It is to stoop down and lift mankind a little higher.” This is, to me, what you have experienced at McKendree University. We do want you to succeed in any endeavor you wish to undertake, but in doing so make the world a better place for everyone. If you continuously strive to make things happen, never compromise your values, never be afraid to try, lead wisely and practice honesty, you will be a leader people will look up to and strive to emulate. My wish for each of you is that you strive every day to be your best, lead by example and never forget the lessons academically, morally and spiritually you have learned at McKendree.

I don’t know who penned the final quote, but these are some very powerful words to live by. “Every job is a self-portrait of the person who did it. Autograph your work with excellence.”