Phone: 802-652-7001


Degrees and Certifications:

Mr. Patrick Burke

Mr. Patrick Burke is the Principal of South Burlington High School.  He has worked at South Burlington High School since 1998.  He was honored as Vermont’s Principal of the Year in 2005 and was named a National Distinguished Principal in 2006. He graduated from Connecticut College with a BA in Government, is a graduate of the University of Vermont’s Snelling Center for Government’s Leadership Project, studied at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business, the Principals’ Center at Harvard University and earned a M.Ed. in educational leadership from Vermont College.  

Mr. Burke received the South Burlington Rotary Fred Tuttle Award in 2014. He served as President of the Vermont Principals’ Association until 2017, is on the South Burlington Veterans Committee and is on the board of directors for a number of youth advocacy organizations in Vermont.  

Mr. Burke has twice battled cancer, most recently in 2017.  The members of the Class of 2017 asked Mr. Burke to speak at graduation this year the text of his speech is below.  Video of the entire ceremony, including his speech, is available at LINK HERE.   

Mr. Burke is active on social media, specifically Twitter.  Follow him online HERE


Thank you to the Class of 2017 for asking me to say a few words today…. Side note about my role today: This is my 20th year at SBHS and my first time speaking -- I’m usually the person who advises our commencement speakers. 

As they prepared THEIR WORDS I always was sure to remind them of the following…pro tips:

Pro-tip #1: The fewer words the better. 

Pro-tip #2: Keep in mind that at the end of every graduation nobody’s ever found me the crowd and said…hey, hey, Mr. Burke…“that ceremony was a little too short.”

So…as you -- the students -- all know and as everyone here is about to find out, my attendance this year was – shall we say – spotty.  I kind of had “reverse senoritis.” That is I became “more present” as the year went on…


 I find it really interesting that you would ask me – the guy who missed almost all of the year – to be your speaker. My first question for you is – did I miss anything?  …. I mean … did anything out of the ordinary happen this year?

Somewhere someone is giving a commencement address that includes the clichéd quote of Abraham Lincoln’s observation that actions speak louder than words…and while in many cases that may be true – let’s all consider that words can be pretty darn powerful.  To paraphrase Mark Twain “the difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between being hit by a lightning bug or being hit by lightning.”

Perhaps a more easily accessible example would be the large difference between a lockdown DRILL and an actual lockdown… small difference in words, large difference between the situations…but you students are well aware of that.  It’s the difference between someone who HAS cancer and someone who HAD cancer.

So there it is my diagnosis…my confidential medical information just shared with well over 15 hundred people…odds are that some of you out there have fought the same fight, and every one of us has been impacted by cancer.  It’s unfortunately – still --  a pervasive and terrible disease.

Don’t worry – I’m not going to talk about MY cancer this entire talk – but – I think there is a metaphor worth pushing…and you will see I’m going to pursue that…

But first – Let me say that I’m not sure if the world is a better place now than it was in the fall when you started your Senior year … some may say yes, many would say no.  But I can tell you that in November I had just completed months of outpatient chemotherapy and received a brand new immune system. I was confined to a really small hospital room for weeks and quarantined at home for months…so for me things are DEFINITELY better than they were in November.

Hey -- Fun fact: Did you know that patients who receive new immune systems are at risk for all kinds of disease. Food borne illness is some kind of super risk (which incidentally put a dent in my stopping at gas station convenience stores for sushi on my way home from work)

Anyway -- at the end of my stay at Dana Farber the nutritionist on my team was going through the super long list of things I could not eat – sensing my attention was wandering (it was) … she looked at me and said, in her unforgettable Boston accent -- look fella  – just to review – there are a lot of bacteria on uncooked foods…so just keep in mind processed foods are bettah. (I think I was still gazing out the window when she said, “Yo, buddy salads are bad twinkies are good”)

So…in addition to my twinkie diet, and despite what you may see on CNN’s twitter feed IT IS A FACT that a lot of great things have happened and are happening since this fall…many great things have happened since you started HS school.

You - the Class of 2017 has made a lasting impact on SBHS.

YOU won talent night 3 times & homecoming twice; you are incredibly talented musically with many all state band and chorus selections; you were members of State Championship had major roles in Urinetown, Bring It On, The Boyfriend, and Sister Act…the entire Deca future business leaders of Vermont State Executive Board is made up of members of the Class of 2017

You started new clubs like the Diversity Union and the Cooking Club, you logged thousands of hours of community service…some of you became Eagle Scouts, some became US Citizens

Many of you got your driver’s licenses, voted for the first time, earned your first paycheck…made exciting plans for the future…or at least exciting plans for this weekend…


But still – let’s face it, there is some tough stuff going on in our world and society right now…some would say there is a kind of societal cancer.  (Here comes the metaphor…folks)

Medical cancer – real cancer --  starts when cells grow out of control and crowd out normal cells. This makes it hard for the body to work the way it should.  The dictionary definition of cancer actually includes its non-medical metaphorical usage.  Cancer can simply mean something bad crowding out something good.  We’ve all heard this usage of the word before – player X is a “cancer” in the locker room…or the juniors are talking over the senior parking lot like a cancer…

So what’s going on in our society…it seems to me that some things bad are crowding out some things good.  Division, anger, extremism, poverty and selfishness are all cancers crowding out what is good about our society and our world. 

But – as an experienced twinkie eating cancer survivor – I would like to extend the metaphor …. and I actually have a few ideas to address “societal cancer”

 First off let’s give society some chemotherapy – chemo treatment has been around for decades and while it’s usually painful and ugly – it can work! 

So chemo as treatment for societal cancer – let’s see that’s…probably….

Learning about government! Participating in our democratic institutions! Making a difference! Resisting! Supporting! Protesting! Arguing! Fighting! Shouting! Winning! Losing!  Oh man – even if societal chemo works  – like real chemotherapy, it sounds mostly awful to go through – it’s worth it if it works, but all in all, it comes at a cost.  But – did you know that for “real cancer” there is this new cutting edge treatment?  It’s called immunotherapy and it boosts the body's natural defenses to fight the cancer.

Immunotherapy uses substances made by the body to improve or restore immune system function. It harnesses what’s already in us to defeat the cancer. Side effects can be amazingly minimal.  Even though it’s the kind of thing I would make love to up, I’m not …are there any doctors here?  I see a few in the crowd and some future docs in caps and gowns … this immunotherapy is the “real deal” ... it’s literally saving lives already…

So while chemo may TREAT cancer by forcing it into submission, immunotherapy simply allows the power of our body to work within itself and eradicate the cancer.   Chemo is the treatment – but (many hope) Immunotherapy is the CURE.

So…if our societal cancer TREATMENT results in simmering anger, disdain for others, disunity and resentfulness …. even when the treatment “works” we’re still not cured.  So what is the immunotherapy for our society?  I would offer that it’s very similar to the medical kind – that is it starts by infusions that boost our immune system, harnessing what is inside each individual to fight the cancer. 

People can’t just “will” their immune systems to start working correctly – the patient’s system needs a boost.   This boost comes in the form of drugs with really long names (side note for more information on this topic…check out my twitter feed, I just tweeted a link)

So…what are these boosters for our society?

  • ONE: We need to understand the power of words -- as Elie Wiesel (L.A. Vi-sell) said, “Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds.”  

I’ve heard Vermont’s Governor Phil Scott in graduation speeches this spring encourage college and HS grads to be thoughtful on social media, specifically on twitter. I have to smile at that advice because in my experience the youth of today are much more appropriate on social media than my adult peers.  But good for Gov. Scott for bringing it up – it’s good advice. Not as fun to implement as a Twinkie diet, but still – good advice. Words have power.

  • TWO: The next booster I suggest is to communicate in a way that assures that we are listening each other. This “booster” is closely linked to the power of words. Good listeners understand this.  If you want to be heard yourself avoid using words that shut down two-way communication – these are “chemo words” -- they may “treat the situation” but they will not be a “cure.” 

 Call someone a bigot and they’ll shut down, let someone know you think they’re a “politically correct snowflake” and your real conversation is over…name calling may make for funny memes or clever signs at protests BUT as you head off into the world of college, jobs, and the military – take some time to understand that not all conservatives are stuck in their ways and not all liberals are progressive bleeding hearts. 

Our society – in fact our Nation -- needs you to challenge yourself to seek multiple viewpoints and to most of all -- listen.

Try in every situation – as hard as it may be -- to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

  • By far the most powerful booster for our society – which you the class of 2017 has in abundance – is the ability to express compassionate love. Because such love is both a sentiment and an observable act it is the “mother of all” boosters. 

 Maybe it was a tough year in and out of school…but it was compassion and love that got us through…Love is within us; it’s not like voting (though you should do that) listening, also a good idea, or eating Twinkies – (which I totally recommend) –  rather it is through compassion and love that we harness amazing influence –

Love is not the treatment – it’s the cure …Love is like the cutting edge immunotherapy drugs literally melting inoperable and deadly tumors. Love is what got us through this year…your teachers’ love during our lockdowns, your classmates love during the highs and lows of high school, your community’s love for you and your school, your love for each other and your families and your friends.

During your time in HS I started to notice a specific hand gesture taking over your social media feeds…like (perhaps) the peace sign of the 60s this hand gesture became omnipresent.  This hand gesture symbolizes love – and in my final request to you as your principal I’d like to ask that you do two things.

IN a moment (when I say go) stand up and flash this sign to those in the audience who are here to honor you -- your family, friends, neighbors, whoever. Send them some love…..then flash the sign to a total stranger…someone you do not know…have never met…you ready? W/ me – get this? Go!

As you head out into the world – harness your inner compassionate love and make our world a better place.

I’ve told you before that your love helped me get better …and South Burlington will forever be grateful to the amazing Class of 2017.

Patrick Burke