How the Teaching Fellowship is like Water-Skiing

Pat Kirby is the Executive Director of Citizen Schools Massachusetts. He delivered this speech to graduating second year Teaching Fellows at this year's graduation ceremony.  Water-skiing sounds great, but when you actually do it for the first time, it’s pretty terrifying.  I was just a kid when I tried it for the first time and, while I’ve gone on to like water skiing quite a bit, that first experience left me a little scarred!

When the boat takes off and yanks you violently through the water it’s a bit of a nightmare.  You have this deluge of rushing water crushing over you.  It’s churning wildly and you can’t see anything. The torque from the ski-rope is pulling your arms out of your sockets. You’re left absolutely panicked as you wonder how you ever let your parents convince you to try this out.

There’s this moment when you think, “So this is what it feels like to die,” and then you remember what everyone kept telling you: “Just remember to keep your ski tips up, lean back and let the boat pull you out of the water.”  And you finally stop fighting everything and just focus on that simple advice, and suddenly, miraculously, after what seems like an eternity, that’s exactly what happens.

The boat just pulls you up and out.

And now you’re standing up and skiing and you’re a little stunned at the scene before you – an open expanse of water, people waving from the boat and shouting encouragement and this great, big lake all around you.  Your perspective couldn’t be more starkly different than mere seconds earlier.

People react differently once they’re up. There are those who are just happy to be out of the water.  They play it safe and just stay behind the boat…still a little terrified and focused exclusively on not falling.

Then there are others who see this great opportunity before them and seize it.  They cut outside the wake and carve back and forth, unafraid of falling.  And even if they do fall, they’re no longer afraid of what it will take to get pulled right back up.  They seize the moment and they carve it up!

I draw three life lessons from my experience water skiing:

1.    Let the boat pull you out.

Control what you can control, and let the rest take care of itself.  Those who fight the water and flail about trying to pull themselves up tend to wipe out or fall off.

Some of you Teaching Fellows may have fought the deluge these past couple of years.  But it was only when you focused on what you could control and nailed that that you likely had success.

In life, you’ll have plenty more moments that throw you for a loop.  You’ll have your equivalent of the water deluge in your face.  Figure out what you can control.  Do it excellently.  And let the boat pull you up.

2.    Your perspective changes the second you’re up and out. 

For me, it was watery hell one second, and then beautiful, exhilarating panorama the next.

Any time you go through an intense experience, it’s hard to make sense of it in the moment.  But, suddenly, after you are up and out, you can look back and understand what it meant and how it gave you the opportunity to gain a clearer view of the world and yourself.

I hope all of you leave today with greater perspective and see the world differently, maybe better, because of the Teaching Fellowship experience.

3.    Lastly, it’s what you do after you’re up and out that makes it all worth it. 

That part is entirely up to you.  You can just play it safe and avoid falling or you can carve it up.

You’ve all earned this honor today and are graduating from the Teaching Fellowship. You’re all adults who can make up your own minds about what you do from here.  You can do whatever you want.  But if you don’t mind, I’ll offer this final bit of advice.  The world has a too many people playing it safe.  I say:


Good luck to all of you.  Congratulations again for completing this two-year journey.  Please stay in touch and please stay involved!