This is the second post in the series. You can find the first post on defining your core beliefs here.
There has been a lot of discussion about the power of why. Thanks to Simon Sinek and his discussions of starting with why, knowing and explaining the why has become the driver for learning and professional discussions (or at least it should be). I truly believe these things about the why:
- Educators need to know their why to be engaged and have buy-in
- While “for the students” is an important (and should be obvious) why, it’s not always the only one necessary and sometimes needs to be taken a step further
- How connected you are with your own why determines your engagement (personally or professionally)
- When you help students know their why, it will increase their engagement in school
- When people don’t know their why, they sometimes need to be lead down the path to finding it
Your Why and Purpose
Last summer I saw a video in a session at the FIRST Conference that summarized my feelings better than I could have ever explained. If you haven’t seen this video called Know Your Why by Michael Jr, you need to watch it.
When you know your why your what has more impact because you’re walking in and toward your purpose. – Michael Jr.
I could watch that video over and over it’s so powerful.
I was recently listening to the book The Power of Moments by Heath (which I highly recommend – it has been my reading of the year). They compare knowing your why to understanding your purpose and define purpose as “the sense that you are contributing to others, that your work has broader meaning.¹” In studies that they discuss in the book, they found that when people were only passionate about what they did, it did not necessarily equate to higher achievement in their jobs even though they were happy. However, if they knew their purpose or meaning (or why), they were found to be more likely to go above and beyond the expectations of their positions.
To me, this makes total sense. I know that if a teacher has buy-in into an initiative, they will do everything they can to make it happen. How do you create buy-in? You tell people their why. You show them the purpose, and this has to be one of the cases where the why goes beyond just “it’s what’s best for kids”. They need specifics. For example:
“We are beginning trauma-informed training and implementing social-emotional learning curriculum into the school day to help alleviate some of the trauma-related behaviors. This is better for students because it will help their stress levels, allow their brains to understand that they do not always need to be in fight or flight mode, and will allow them to use more of their brain to focus on learning.”
This is a why that goes beyond this is what’s best for students and gives purpose to the initiative. Our why for teaching is students and their learning. Teachers want to know how the new initiative is going to provide additional purpose and meaning beyond how they already care for their students. When teachers know this, they will attend the necessary professional development even if it’s after hours, they will implement the necessary components into their classroom, and they will tell their fellow teachers about their successes. They may even spend their prep times moving other teachers to get on the bandwagon. They will have complete buy-in. If an initiative hasn’t gotten the kind of attention it needs, I would guess that the majority of the time the purpose either hadn’t been identified or didn’t resonate with the staff.
Know Your Own Why
I don’t believe that there is going to be one driving force for everything we do, although there might be some that are overarching. My family, for example, is one of my driving forces for everything I do. When I taught, what drove me were the relationships that I created with students. Those times when students would come back from the middle school to see me were treasured not only because I knew they had thought enough of me to come and say hello, but because I missed them. I was aware that anyone could teach the content, but not everyone could recreate the same relationship I had with them.
When I moved into administration, my purpose shifted because I don’t have access to students in the same capacity I did as a teacher. Even though ultimately everything I do is to positively affect student learning, my focus is on educators and any and all support that I can offer. Similar to knowing my core beliefs, knowing my why and my purpose for being in education holds me up when I feel like I’m being pulled under. It drives me when I’m tired and drained and don’t feel like I have much more to give.
Also similar to my core beliefs, my meaning might be different than other’s, and that’s ok. What drives a person is incredibly personal, and it will never work for one to just adopt another’s why as their own unless they truly believe it. I have found many times that when educators have become disengaged from teaching, they have often forgotten why they became teachers in the first place. They have lost their purpose.
Students need a why, too
I’ve told this story before, but it is one of my favorites. My son, Goose, incredibly witty and intelligent and finds school a bore, came home from school last year and asked me, “Wanna know the dumbest thing I learned in school today, Mom?” (insert educator mom cringe) “I learned about imaginary numbers, Mom. IMAGINARY. As in they don’t exist. Next, we are going to be learning about unicorns in animal biology. When am I ever going to use this?” I couldn’t even argue with him. I have no idea why we teach imaginary numbers, and clearly, he didn’t either. Did he do the homework? Yes, two hours of it. Was he irritated by the experience? Yes, I believe he actually liked school a little less, even. I wanted to be able to give him a reason, but the only thing I could think of was that he had to take that class, which was enough meaning for him to finish the class with a good grade but not enough to care.
More recently, my daughter told me that her math teacher answered a similar question to a lack of real-world application like this: “I understand that you may not use this concept in your everyday life, but doing math like this exercises your brains. Just like your bodies need exercise, this math makes your brain work harder.” The answer made me smile. The teacher had at least taken the time to find a purpose for what seemed like useless math problems that did make sense. Now, whether that why resonated with the kids or not, I don’t know. But, I feel like she at least attempted to give the kids a greater purpose for doing something that felt useless.
Many times our kids’ purpose for finishing work is getting a grade so they can graduate and possibly pursue post-secondary learning, but that purpose excludes any kind of passion or desire to learn. It’s the reason that students seem so apathetic towards classes, especially in high school. Many times in elementary, they are still excited to learn, particularly about topics they’re interested in, but I think by the time high school rolls around their why shifts from learning to grades, and grades aren’t enough of a driver to keep them engaged. They can certainly have good grades and graduation as one of their purposes, but our jobs as teachers are to help them find their meaning, help them find their why, so they can be fully engaged in learning as well.
¹Heath, Chip. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact (p. 217). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.”