Lessons from Great Teachers: 2023 Commencement Address by Max Delgado

Last week, I was lucky enough to take a group of Seniors on an Interim trip to Utah. It was fantastic, even if the kids all wanted to stay up past 9 o’clock, which is just too late for me nowadays. Some of our chaperones were also CA alumni, and one of my favorite parts of the trip was watching this group of Seniors and graduates sit around the campfire and share stories about CA. 

Listening to these stories shows me the tremendous affection CA students have for their teachers. I wish I could pass it around to the Upper School faculty, so they could be reminded why they got into education in the first place. 

Seniors, as we celebrate your graduation, I want you to know the affection you have for your teachers is mutual, and it is my honor to speak to you today on behalf of the faculty with whom you’ve developed such deep and powerful bonds.

Now Seniors, you may not know this, but one of the best kept secrets in schools is that teachers were once students too. For some teachers that was long ago; for others, it was about 20 minutes ago. Schools are surprisingly intergenerational, but we all have one thing in common: You are, or were taken care of by, teachers. 

As Principal, one of my jobs is to hire teachers. We have search committees and department chairs dedicated to ensuring you get the right people in the front of the classroom every fall. 

About five years ago, when I first became a principal, I began asking candidates what kind of high school students they were. To this day it’s still one of my favorite questions. Everybody thinks it’s a trick question. It’s not a trick question. And sometimes I have to ask it twice.

There’s a second part of the question, too, however. How has the high school student you were informed the kind of high school teacher you are today?

Now, I’m going to tell you a secret. We don’t care how they answer the first part of the question. Some teachers were spectacular students: They took honors classes, earned straight As, had a preternatural understanding of all the hidden levers of academic life. They were fluent in school. That’s fantastic, but it doesn’t matter.

Some teachers as students lost their book bags on the way to school and lost their shoes on the way home. They perpetually felt it seemed like everyone had been given some secret manual on how to be a student, but they missed class that day. That sounds rough. But it doesn’t matter.

The reason it doesn’t matter is because we’re not hiring the high school kid they were; we’re hiring the teacher they have become. 

So, that’s where the second part of the question comes in. After you ask a candidate what kind of high school student they were, the job of the committee is to keep quiet and see what they say next. 

I’m going to tell you right now that some candidates forget to answer the second part of the question. They just blink at you. And some candidates will tell you that the only kind of student they can help is the kind of student who matches the profile of the kid they were.

Someday, if you run a school or you’re on a committee, don’t hire those people. But magically and consistently for CA, it’s during the second part of the question that the true educator emerges. The best teachers are those who, regardless of the kind of student they were, are able to reach past their experience to cultivate and care for the type of kid they never were. That’s the type of teacher you’re looking for.

I was once a student, too. In the spring of my senior year, one of my teachers, Mr. McClure, pulled me aside to have a serious talk. “Max,” he started, “do you know what your problem is?”

Now, I’d already had a lot of serious talks with adults by the age of 17. So I had a pretty good idea of what my problems were. But I also knew that Mr. McClure intended to answer his own question. So, I just listened.

Mr. McClure told me, “Max, everything you do is just good enough. I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen you try to be truly excellent at something.”

To be fair, he wasn’t wrong. This was back in 1995. I’m a Gen X-er. I was a scholarship kid at a prep school and prep schools were new to me. The culture was new to me, the suburbs where my high school was were new to me. All my classmates seemed freaked out all the time. They were freaked out about grades, internships, colleges, all of it. My belief was that perfectionism was at the root of their freaked-out-ness. 

So, my answer was to reject all of it. It was this rejection that Mr. McClure was speaking to, which really was just my immaturity. Mr. McClure knew I had mistakenly equated perfectionism with the pursuit of excellence.

It took me years before I understood what Mr. McClure was getting at. Being excellent means caring about something so much that you’re willing to leave all your money on the table just for the shot at getting that thing right. Being a perfectionist is about being afraid of leaving anything at the table because you don’t want to get that thing wrong. 

But his advice didn’t land back then. I felt his observation was out of pace with who I wanted to be. To me his words were a dusty relic of his ancient, outdated generation. I think the man was 32. And so I shrugged, and said, “Mr. McClure, being okay with good enough is actually my greatest strength.” And off I went, stumbling along for the next decade or so.

But much later, sometime in my 30s, once I had become a relic of my own ancient, outdated generation, I was talking to one of my best friends from high school, Jake. Now Jake had a very different profile than me. He had a preternatural understanding of all the hidden levers of academic life. He took all honors courses, he earned straight A’s. He was a perfectionist, and man, was he always freaking out.

So years later, Jake told me that in the spring of his high school year, Mr. McClure had pulled him aside and told him that striving for excellence across the board is untenable and unhealthy. Humans aren’t meant to grip the steering wheel like that all the time. So Mr. McClure encouraged Jake to let himself be good enough more often.

Now that is a good teacher.

The truth is, I have no idea what kind of high school kid Mr. McClure was. It doesn’t matter. Because regardless, he was able to reach past his experience to cultivate and care for the type of kid he never was, while using his experience to cultivate and care for the type of kid he invariably was.

Mr. McClure knew that in order for Jake and me to become healthy adults, we needed to engage in the art of balance. Like a good teacher, he knew we had different starting points, different temperaments, and different bear traps, which means we needed different approaches. 

Most students in America are lucky if they get a couple of Mr. McClures during their high school years. You’ve got a building full of them.

When I sat around the campfire in Utah listening to students tell stories about their teachers, I heard evidence of all the different ways your teachers have reached out to you over the last four years—all the different approaches informed by all your different temperaments, all your different starting points, all your different bear traps.

Some of you have been told to slow down. Others of you have been told to speed up. Seniors, you have been well known and well loved and changed by that love. But make no mistake: You changed us too. You hold a unique place in the story of CA, and here’s what your teachers want you to know.

You were the first class since the pandemic to have a relatively normal Senior year from start to finish: no masks, no Zoom, no mass testing after break. You’re the first graduating class since 2019 to participate in all the classic Senior-year traditions, which many of you never got to witness before you were in charge of them. But you embraced them and reshaped them in positive ways. 

As artists you were exceptional. You were the first class post-pandemic to make All-State Choir. You were first class—starting tomorrow—to go on an international choir trip. You wowed us with your Portfolio Shows, you received standing ovations for your performances, but most importantly, you stirred the emotions and the dreams of the community as they absorbed your work.

Athletically you made a name for yourselves across Colorado: Boys Soccer state title, Girls Field Hockey state title, Girls Lacrosse state title. You advanced all of our teams, and you did it with grit and class. 

As a faculty, we’ve noticed how, maybe more than any other class, you celebrated each other’s successes uniquely and genuinely. You attended each other’s sporting events, art shows, and theater productions as a way to show how much you care about each other.

And maybe most impressively of all, to you, your grade ran the longest game of Knockout to date. 

Your grade is composed of musicians, writers, debaters, actors, and athletes—so much talent, that we sometimes forget what lies at the core of this experience—the academic program. And it is here where you demonstrated your deep curiosity and hard work ethic. You were so eager to take advantage of your education that each year, we had to add extra sections of our highest level courses just to match your interests.

You took advantage of everything that schools like CA set out to do, and your teachers offer you their deepest congratulations. 

There are two last things your teachers want you to know. First, be deliberate and calculating about the things you choose to be excellent about. It shouldn’t be too many. It shouldn’t be too few. If you care deeply about something, then it’s a pretty good indication it’s worth leaving all your money on the table just for a shot at getting that thing right.

And be deliberate and calculating about the things you would like to be good enough at. It’s probably more things than you think. But it should never be all things. There are so few precious hours in this world, and the universe grants each of us only a finite amount of life energy to use as we see fit. So don’t give it away. 

Yes, sometimes you’ll make mistakes. Your teachers know you’ll pursue excellence at something that doesn’t really matter that much, or you’ll aim to be good enough at something that should have been given a lot more care. Don’t beat yourself up. Mistakes, when shared freely and without shame, are the most powerful teaching tools students have to help other humans.

Second, your teachers want you to know that it wasn’t just they who raised you these last four years. Just as your relationship to your teachers will change after graduation, so, too, will your relationship with your parents change, as you shed the state of adolescence.

There’s an old adage that parents only want two things for their kids. They want to know if their kids love them. And they want to know that their kids’ lives work. The rest is details, and details, some might suggest, that we as parents would be well served not to have too strong opinions about. 

So Seniors, go love your parents, and go make your lives work. We are eager to see how the details unfurl. 

And finally, your teachers want you to know that as you get older, a peculiar thing will happen between you and your parents. Those two things—knowing that they love you and knowing that their lives work—aren’t just what parents want for their kids. Once you get enough distance from childhood, once you have a better understanding of your parents as humans, real humans—who have different temperaments, different starting points, and different bear traps than you—then you’ll realize these are the only two things you want for them also.

We are all somebody’s kid. But today you belong to all of us, not just your parents, not just your teachers, but to all of CA and all of the schools that will inherit you in the fall.

Class of 2023, on behalf of your faculty, congratulations. We are thrilled for you and the world you will shape.