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Lessons from Nelson Mandela

3 min read


At a time when education in America continues to be in crisis, we can learn a great deal from Nelson Mandela. Mandela was able to go to the very root of problems in South Africa and define them in terms of  human justice, dignity, connectedness,  equality and spirit. He then had the courage to do whatever was necessary to create change.

Although much is being done to “fix” our education system, little real change is happening. There is a lot of action, but limited impact. Politics and bureaucracy continue to block real change. In his speech at Mandela’s memorial service, President Obama stated: “We still see children suffering from hunger, disease, run-down schools, with few prospects for the future.”

We need grassroots champions who will embrace and have the courage to act upon some of Nelson Mandela’s lessons, including:

1. “Education is the most powerful weapon that you can use to change the world.” It is time to redefine the real purpose of education and how we will best accomplish our goals.

2. Ubuntu. We must recognize “that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; and that we achieve ourselves by sharing with others and caring for those around us.” This cannot be just a quotable quote. The spirit is within all of us, perhaps as human nature, and we cannot let human nature be redefined as anything less.

3. “It always seems impossible until it is done.” Individuals can make things happen. As a teacher, a principal, a superintendent, a parent or a student, personal actions make a difference. We must inspire and connect.

4. “See your responsibilities to others and make people want to be different.” Too many of us explain our lack of meaningful action by doing what they are “told” rather than following their hearts.

5. “Be the master of your fate. Be the captain of your soul.” If educators are not driven by their soul, their basic beliefs and values, how can we expect our children to do so?

6. “Allow our hearts and minds to be engaged and empowered.” People are not engaged and empowered by rules, regulations and data. Know yourself and feel empowered to make a difference.

7. “Take risks on behalf of your ideals.” Change does not happen without risk-taking.

8. “Formal equality is not good enough.” Although necessary, we must move beyond changing laws, policies and procedures to changing hearts. This requires passion and courage.

Nelson Mandela’s legacy must live on in all of us. It can be the inspiration we need to actually act on the issues of equality and human spirit that so desperately need to be addressed by educators, students and communities throughout America.

What are your passions and ideals? What are you going to do to create a new future for our children and for America?

Carol Hunter is an award-winning, retired elementary-school principal and author of “Real Leadership Real Change”. She is president of Impact Leadership, a consulting company focused on bringing real change to public education. Learn more at