Commencement 2005: Two Graduates Share Their Stories | Teachers College Columbia University

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Commencement 2005: Two Graduates Share Their Stories

As eloquent as the medalists were at this year’s Convocation, they may have been outshone by TC’s own student speakers, Master’s graduates Deb Sawch and Carolyn Woods.

As eloquent as the medalists were at this year's Convocation, they may have been outshone by TC's own student speakers, Master's graduates Deb Sawch and Carolyn Woods.

Before arriving at Teachers College, Sawch spent 25 years as a marketer for Kraft Foods, where she was selected as Kid Marketer of the Year by KidScreen Magazine. Now she's on her way to a new career in classroom teaching, which she calls "the fulfillment of a lifelong dream." Why did it take so long?  Years ago, when her mother - a single parent who had supported five kids on a teacher's salary -- was dying of cancer, she gave Sawtch a final piece of advice: "Whatever you do, don't teach."

"Instead, said Sawch, "I spent 25 years in a very fulfilling career in business, I traveled the world, I met rock stars, actors, actresses, professional athletes, chefs, and even a president.  But I can honestly tell you I never, ever felt the rush I feel when I am in a classroom and when I hear a sixteen-year-old shout "Aha!" during a discussion on Hamlet." But, she said "sometimes it's really hard to muster up the guts to enter a field where the costs are often high and the rewards often difficult to measure."

Nevertheless, Sawch concluded, "perhaps my mother did not utter a full sentence after all when she advised me that day.  What she may have meant to say is this:  ‘Don't teach, just yet.  Don't teach until you embrace your role as change agent for the good of education.  Gather up your guts, your life experiences, your talents, and your passions, and everything else you use to make meaning of the world.  Channel them all toward building learning communities that endure.  And then whatever you do, wherever you go, teach your heart out.' "
The second Master's ceremony saw Carolyn Woods, who was graduating with a degree in Deaf Education and Elementary Education. Woods is the first deaf student from Teachers College to be placed in a hearing classroom as a student teacher. She used sign language at the podium while an interpreter spoke the words of her speech.

Woods told the audience about her experience teaching at a school for deaf children in Brooklyn. The students initially refused to believe that someone attending an Ivy League institution could really be deaf. " These children were already conditioned to believe that their futures were limited.  Their experiences had already told them that there were some things that they could not do. … These children simply have not had enough people like themselves in their lives showing them what their futures could be like." While they learned from her experience, she said, "each day I could see a new sense of hope in their eyes and a new spirit of adventure in their expressions."

In contrast, her students in a hearing classroom at PS 9 were full of questions "Why can't you speak?  How did you become deaf?  Do you have any friends?" They welcomed her quickly, she said, and "soon I started noticing them signing to each other during quiet times."
As a teacher of deaf children, she said, "my goal will be to look for their strengths, not to focus on their weaknesses; to point out their possibilities, not their limitations; to accept them for the people that they are, encourage their dreams, and celebrate what they have the potential to become."

Her speech was met by applause - both the thunderous kind and the Deaf Education Master's candidates joyfully waving their hands to sign their congratulations and support.

Published Tuesday, Jun. 7, 2005