One of my favorite things about working in education is that every new school year gives us a fresh start. New students, new materials, new attitudes, sometimes new grade level or school. After a summer off, I can come back with a renewed sense of purpose and energy. As we all know, teaching can be exhausting, and without summers off, teachers would burn out. So what keeps us coming back, year after year, to face the challenges, the workload, the frustrations, the little freckled faces? We sure aren’t doing it for the money or the fame. So we must have a good reason why.
Simon Sinek explores this question in his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. This was part of my summer reading list. Having heard Sinek’s Ted Talk on the topic, I was intrigued by the challenge of identifying my own why and exploring how it impacts what I do.
I had a gut level feeling that I had a why for becoming a teacher. It would be easy to say it is because I care about kids or I love teaching reading and literature, but I think it is more than that. I once heard that teaching is radical activism, and I have always believed that, at least on a small scale. I decided to become a teacher after tutoring an adult beginning reader through the Carlsbad Library Literacy Services, where the experience of teaching reading to a young woman struggling at a 4th grade level clicked for me, and I knew I needed to change careers. By opening our classroom doors to every student, rich or poor, regardless of race, religion, or even reading ability, we give every child the chance to gain an education that might change that student’s life, and maybe change the world. That’s powerful stuff, but also pretty idealistic. After 17 years in the field, I know that these ideals are often met by the brick wall of reality. Teaching with such lofty goals in mind is either an exercise in frustration, or a practice in patience. Yes, we can impact one student, and teachers often do make a lasting impact for the better on more than one student every year, but no single teacher can change the world on her own, even one student at a time. When I chose to go back to school to earn a teaching credential as a second career, I did so because I believed in the promise of public education. I saw my adult beginning reader as the tip of the iceberg, and I knew I could do more good on the classroom level. I spent the first few years working really hard to be a good teacher to the cohort of students that came through, only to have to start all over the next fall. I was doing just enough to help the average and advanced students move to the next grade level with sufficient skills, and I was often successful at helping a struggling student or two make a breakthrough, but after a number of years, I was frustrated by the limited impact I was making.
When I realized that I had to think beyond my one classroom in order to have a greater impact, my why changed. I no longer wanted to teach just because I wanted to help kids, 35 at a time or even 165 at a time. I wanted to help the whole system get better at helping kids.
What I was doing in the classroom, teaching English to twelve- and thirteen-year-olds, was not matching up with my why. Simon Sinek talks about the Golden Circle, where what and how you do what you do is in service of your purpose. I know, my what was admirable, I was doing something pretty important. I don’t discount how essential good reading and writing skills are for success in the real world, and I did have the amazing opportunity to help kids start to think critically, really think and see and consider other perspectives, and that was precious. Every now and then, a student’s essay, a socratic seminar, or a research presentation would wow me with how an adolescent could make leaps and bounds in maturity and intellect in ten short months. And that felt good, it felt valuable. But I wanted to be able to replicate that experience more consistently and to ensure it was happening not just in my classroom and not just on the good days. I was also pretty sure that those aha! moments were happening in other classrooms under the direction of other teachers, but that no one was collecting these moments as data and sharing it with the world. And while I was struggling to remain positive and continue expending great energy towards getting those wonderful, infrequent, and hard-to-quantify results, the media and politicians were stirring up talk about charter schools and vouchers and the failure of our public education system.
I refused to believe them.
I knew that a lot of good teaching and learning was going on, but the only data getting publicized were standardized test scores. The educators who were doing great work were too busy in their classrooms to advertise their own successes, and even school leaders were sometimes too distracted by test scores and budgets and punitive accountability systems to promote the promising practices happening on their campuses.
I am now fortunate enough to be in a position where my scope of contact is much wider than one classroom. I get to see all those great teachers in action. I am a witness to such talent, energy, dedication, and innovation that I can’t help but brag. I also know that we are not doing everything perfectly; there is room for growth. But now, what I do matches my why. My job now is to support teachers in doing their work well. I help them find materials and resources that support the teaching of content standards and key skills, I provide coaching and resources to promote the use of effective instructional strategies. Sometimes I get to brainstorm strategies with a teacher who wants to try something different, or observe a teacher who wants feedback. I get to send teachers to workshops and conferences so they can advance their expertise and get inspired. I facilitate collaborative conversations around student performance and next steps for instruction. In short, I get to help find, promote, and replicate those practices that will make public education deliver on its promise. I get to be involved with how our schools are providing high quality education to all of our students. And I get to share what I see and hear, and what I know is happening in public education, with a wide audience, thanks to social media. I can help drive excellence in public education from within, and I can also spread the word outside that public education still is the vital and viable mandate it was meant to be.
Some days, when I can’t help a teacher in the way they want, or my day has been spent unpacking dusty boxes of books in the warehouse, or adding up costs to see how much money we don’t have for professional development, what I’m doing feels very distant from my why. But every day that I do something that helps teachers on the front lines do what they do best is a good day. I believe that so much is going right in public schools, especially in the schools in my district, and that we are collectively headed in the right direction. I feel privileged to be able to contribute to that effort. That’s my why. What’s yours?