8 Suggestions for Graduation remarks by Principals, with 10 book recommendations

Many principals deliver remarks at graduation; some principals, heads of schools, and superintendents may find themselves needing to deliver not one but several addresses over the space of just a few weeks.

For many, surely, these opportunities are nothing but a delight; for others, perhaps, they can be the source of stress.

I have had both experiences, delight and stress, as a principal for the past 15 years, and please allow me offer some suggestions for principals preparing such remarks.

1.  Connect to your audience. Remember to always speak both to the graduates and about them.   Of course parents and other visitors are there, but they are there to see you as principal speak to the graduates, and the students (now graduates), though they may have some mild interest in your wisdom or counsel, are going to be most appreciative to hear you speak about them.

2.  Don’t only speak about the graduates. Everyone wants to see you connect to them, but nobody wants to see you only celebrate their accomplishments.  You are their educator and their wise, experienced guide: draw upon your wisdom to inspire them and help convey them a better understanding of the wider world they will soon be entering.

3. Don’t speak too long; don’t speak too briefly. Of course at an event like this, 20 minutes is just too plain long.   It is hard at these types of public events with distracted audiences to hold attention for that long, and not entirely courteous.  But don’t make the mistake of thinking that because 20 minutes is too long, 10 minutes is also too long.  I think there is a sweet spot in the 7-12 minute range, though if the audience is large and the event outdoors, perhaps it is better to err toward the 5-7 minute range.

4.  Look to the future. Our graduates are looking to the future, perhaps more so than at any other time in their life, and they are doing so with both enthusiasm and anxiety.   Communicate to them what the future needs of them, what they have the responsibility to do for making a better world in the future, and suggest that there are most certainly wonderful opportunities available to those who boldly go into the future with the right growth mindset and right work ethic.

5. Draw upon the past.  Graduations and Commencements are rightfully ritualized, representing continuity with the school’s past and symbolizing the unbroken continuity of our civilization being renewed once more.   Draw upon the foundations of that civilization: borrow from ancient wisdom writings (I favor the Greeks) to convey that continuity and the tradition of civilization our graduates are carrying forward.

6.  Engage with and comment upon popular culture. Popular culture is our society’s lingua franca, whether we like it or not, and your audience will perk up a bit more, and pay more attention to your wisdom or counsel, if and when you make a reference to a current movie or hit song or trending television show.   Some will think you are cheapening yourself, and do so with care, to be sure, but you can use it to grab attention and then, having done so, make your point.  Comment on pop culture in ways that draw the lessons for your graduates and audience, but do so positively, rather than railing against Real Housewives or Jersey Shore (as tempting as that might be).

7.  Draw upon current books, recently published, that speak to our changing times, the world our graduates are entering, and the skills and qualities that will help them succeed.   It is not a bad idea to draw upon timeless, classic, or standard works in the field, but I worry that when principals cite In Search of ExcellenceThe World is FlatGood to Great, or A Whole New Mind in a 2011 graduation address, they are implicitly suggesting to their audience that they just don’t read books very often, and that is not a message anyone wants to make.  See below for suggested current titles.

8. Talk about learning, especially the new world of learning. As a principal you are an expert in learning, and a master teacher, and nothing is more important to your audience– all of them, graduates, parents, and even grandparents– that they keep on learning. Inspire them to keep on learning, and give them suggestions on how they might best continue to learn in what are our fast-changing times.   What we know about learning is fast developing, and new methods and resources for learning are fast coming, and we should use these opportunities to share our wisdom about these developments.

In the two last suggestions, I suggest the value of drawing upon current books for inspiration and for quotes in your graduation talks. Some recommendations, complete with quotes you can use for your remarks:

1. A New Culture of LearningCultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas.  This work is short, wonderfully readable, and entirely inspiring: there is a world of learning available to us who choose to pursue it.

  • Learning in an Age of Constant Change simply never stops.  In the new culture of learning, the bad news it that we rarely reach any final answers.  But the good news is that we get to play again, and we may find even more satisfaction in continuing the search.”

2. Poke the Box by Seth Godin.  This is his most recent, (I think; he is so prolific that maybe I missed one), but you would do fine if you chose one of his other recent works, such as Linchpin or Tribes.  I spoke last year at my school graduation about Tribes, and it was very successful.    Godin is enormously quotable, and wonderfully provocative.

  • Please stop waiting for a map.  We reward those who draw maps, not those who follow them.”

3.  Do the Work by Steven Pressfield.  See Patrick Larkin’s recent post about this book.

  • A crash means we have failed. We gave it everything we had and we came up short. A crash does not mean we are losers…A crash means we are on the threshold of something new.”

4.  DIYU: Edupunks, edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education by Anya Kamentz.  The title speaks for itself.

  • Everyone explores, virtually and actually.  Everyone contributes something unique.  Everyone learns.  This is the essence of the DIYU idea.

5.  The Social Animal by David Brooks. This book is a brilliant resource for a graduation speech, as Brooks reviews a wide array of sociological research to share with readers and give great insight into what qualities of mind and character are best suited for success in our complicated world.   The fact that he is a Republican columnist also offers your audiences some reassurances that you have a balanced political perspective.

  • “[The teacher] stressed the importance of collecting conflicting information before making up one’s mind, of calibrating one’s certainty level to the strength of the evidence, of enduring uncertainty for long stretches as an answer became clear, of correcting for one’s biases.”

6. Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson.  This is my favorite book of the year, and I think it is brilliant.   You could write a hundred graduation speeches with the ideas contained within this book.

  • the most consistently creative individuals have broad social networks that extend far beyond their organization.”

7.  What Technology Wants by Kevin Kelly. This work, which pairs so well with Johnson’s Good Ideas book, is a sweeping tour-de-force book of history and philosophy, and at times it pushes the envelope in its assertions and hypotheses.  But though I don’t agree with all of it, it offers great food for thought.

  • We generally don’t understand new inventions when they first appear.  Every new idea is a bundle of uncertainty.”

8.  Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How they can Change the World by Jane McGonigal.  This book will certainly offer principals opportunities to connect with students; imagine them hearing you recognize the positive social value gaming can offer the world!

  • In today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy.  Games are providing rewards that reality is not.  They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not.  They are bringing us together in ways reality is not.”

9.  Cognitive SurplusCreativity and Generosity in a Connected Age by Clay Shirky.  This book has a utopian vision of how connectivity can enrich the world, and it is tremendously positive, making it ideal for a graduation ceremony quotation.

  • The range of opportunities we can create for one another is so large, and so different from what life, until recently, was like, that no one person or group and no one set of rules or guides can possibly describe all the possible cases.  The single greatest predictor of how much value we can get out of our cognitive surplus is how much we allow and encourage one another to experiment, because the only group that can try everything is everybody.

10. Why the Net Matters, or Six Easy Ways to Avert the Collapse of Civilization by David Eagleman.   Eagleman was very recently featured in the New Yorker, and he is fast becoming a new intellectual force.

  • The nervous system of the net has wrapped our planet like kudzu, working its way into our lives, buildings, economics, and society. What better opportunity is there for naturalists of the early twenty first century than to study, probe, and seek to understand this new creature?

Readers interested in more inspiration for their own graduation addresses are invited to view a set of ten of my favorite such addresses (forgive the self-promotion, please) here.  (But please note, by no means do I always follow my own advice.)

Three favorites:

Please use the comment box to share your own suggestions for elementary, middle school, or high school principal graduation speeches and your recommendations for recently published books that would make good fodder for graduation speech quotes.

Happy Writing, and Happy Speaking!



  1. Nicely done! Love your choices. Have to add the first version of Chicken Soup for the Soul by Canfield and Hansen. It has tons of great short vignettes. The Art of Living by Epictetus via Sharon Lebell also has amazing short readings. Lastly “Oh the Places” by Dr. Seuss is an awesome way to close the year and send off grads. Thanks for this great post!

    May 17, 2011
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  4. Yellow said:

    OMG. This didn’t help .

    June 15, 2014
  5. dennie said:
    September 14, 2017

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