Every couple of years or so, a Big New Idea sweeps across the business world and ends up being adopted by (or forced on) education leaders. Fish! Philosophy, SMART goals, strategic planning, data-driven decision-making, and choosing your One Word have all found their ways into central offices and welcome back PD days. One of the latest of these fads is finding your WHY. This one is brought to us by Simon Sinek, who you probably know from this video:
Finding your WHY (he’s the one who capitalizes it) is about identifying the reason you do what you do. It’s your passion, your reason for existing. Sinek describes it as, “why you get out of bed in the morning and why anyone should care.”
Because we revere business in this country, schools love hopping on the bandwagon when these fads emerge from the ether. When a business management expert sells a few million copies of his new book and racks up a few million views on YouTube, you can bet there will be plenty of school administrators champing at the bit to shoehorn their ideas into their organizations. “How can this apply to teaching?” they’ll ask.
The truth is, sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately, that rarely dampens people’s enthusiasm for it. I’m willing to bet there are thousands of teachers across the country who have been asked to find their WHY in the last few years. Administrators who push this question have good intentions, but they’re focused on the wrong problem.
Teaching is pregnant with meaning. Teachers do not need to find their WHY. I know very few teachers who don’t recognize their purpose. All of us know our work is meaningful. That’s why most of us chose it instead of fields that paid more but offered less meaningful work. Teaching is a mission-driven profession entered into by largely selfless people for noble reasons. Most teachers are idealists at heart. You have to be, considering the challenges of the job and the modest tangible rewards for doing it. No teacher enters the profession confused about its importance. In fact, one survey of 30,000 teachers found that 100% of them (that’s all 30,000!) were enthusiastic about the profession when they started. That’s because they were 100% sure of their WHY. Even veteran teachers haven’t forgotten why they’re there. Since finding meaning in one’s work is a major contributor to personal happiness, it’s not surprising that teachers rate their lives better than all other occupation groups except doctors.
But teachers are far less happy when they’re actually at work. 61% say their jobs are always or often stressful, and they rank their work environment lower than farmers, construction workers, and miners do. How can this be? If teaching is so meaningful — if teachers know their WHY — how can they be so unhappy at school?
Simple. Teachers don’t burn out and quit because they lose their sense of purpose; they burn out and quit because they can’t pursue that purpose.Teachers don’t burn out and quit because they lose their sense of purpose; they burn out and quit because they can’t pursue that purpose. Click To Tweet
The unanimous enthusiasm young teachers feel when they start quickly wilts under the crushing reality found inside today’s schools. While every teacher starts off believing in the promise of their jobs, just 53% said they were still enthusiastic about teaching at the point they took the above-mentioned survey. Those who “strongly agreed” had dropped from 89% to 15%. The most dangerous year for a teacher is her first. More teachers quit after year one than any other year. The job didn’t suddenly become devoid of meaning for these young idealists. They quit because of the disconnect between what they want to do (their WHY) and what they believe they can do.
Say I start a food pantry because my WHY is to eradicate hunger in my community. My job will certainly not lack meaning. I will be motivated to seek out donations. I’ll research neighborhoods and identify potential clients. I’ll use traditional and digital media to get the word out. I’ll work with schools and businesses to organize food drives. I’ll move heaven and earth to fulfill my mission.
Now say that upon starting my food pantry, the health department tells me I can’t accept certain types of foods. Then I discover that it’s hard to find and keep reliable volunteers. Then I run into capacity problems; I need more space! Then some of my clients start showing up too often and taking more than their fair share. I have to make new rules. Some clients hate my new rules. I regularly run out of popular items and have to purchase them with very limited funds. Some complain about the food I do provide. Then somebody gets sick and sues me. Now I’m paying a lawyer. At some point, I might decide that having a WHY isn’t enough. There are simply too many impediments.
That’s what too many teachers decide.
If a lack of purpose was a real problem for teachers, then we’d expect greater turnover in affluent schools than in high-poverty ones. Teachers might rightly question the meaning of their job if they’re teaching in a wealthy district where kids are going to go to college regardless of their teachers’ efforts. Teachers unquestionably have a better chance at improving the lives of those who come from less. Finding meaning in their work isn’t the issue. The fact that far more teachers leave high-needs schools than affluent ones suggests that it’s not the meaning of the job that makes the difference in whether teachers stick it out, but the likelihood that such meaning can be effectively pursued.
It’s the barriers that are the problem. The lack of resources needed to do the job. The outside factors that influence students’ motivation and abilities. The insufficient training. The absence of mentors. The lack of parent knowledge or support. These are the things that make it hard to remain passionate about a mission that grows increasingly unlikely to be realized.
Even worse is the bureaucratic buffoonery that tends to be especially egregious in high-poverty districts. It’s exhausting to fight for what should be basic needs and rational policies. Teachers are too often forced to do things that conflict with their sense of purpose. No teacher went into the job to focus on test scores and compliance. They shouldn’t have to give a weekly reading test to a kid they know can’t read the test. They shouldn’t be prohibited from reading a math test to a student who’s excellent at math but can’t decode the words in the problem. They shouldn’t be forced to use this grading scale and enter this many grades by such-and-such a date. The decision to assign homework or not shouldn’t be made for them. They shouldn’t be precluded from taking lethargic students outside for a break or discouraged from providing students time to read whatever they want because they have to teach from a canned program that the kids despise and that doesn’t even work.
Those teachers find their WHY, but the why they find is, “WHY did I become a teacher again?”
Teachers already have a WHY. They don’t need soul-searching and deep introspection. Those who are burned out haven’t mailed it in because they believe teaching lacks meaning. They’re demoralized because the meaning inherent in the job has been stripped away in service to some other less meaningful goals.
Teachers do not need to find their WHY. They simply need to be allowed to pursue it.Teachers don't need to find their WHY. They need to be allowed to pursue it. Click To Tweet
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I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort is starting this summer, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to receive a reminder email to sign up for Early Bird Access on June 8.