Teachers Don’t Need To Find Their WHY

find their why

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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9 Replies to “Teachers Don’t Need To Find Their WHY”

  1. An uncomfortable, inconvenient truth for all administrators, politicians and policy makers. . This article illustrates perfectly my reality as a 32 year veteran in public schools in 3 states, with Texas and North Carolina exemplifiying the worst. I returned to the classroom after 13 years in administration, and, after five years, I’ve had enough. I will not continue to put myself through the stress and the misery any longer. And I still love teaching. I could go another 10 years but in a private independent school.

  2. I couldn’t have said it any better myself. Brought tears to my eyes. I am a mom of 2 boys ( 13 & 10) and an elementary teacher for the last 16+ years. I took a LOA last year to “be there” for my family because I realized I hadn’t been. This is exactly why I love teaching and am resigning this year. My hope is to find BALANCE both at home & at work. I hope to find a position in a district that cares about their students, just as teachers do! I’m hopeful that does exist somewhere. ❤️ Loved this article & the video clips! THANK YOU! It feels fantastic to be heard & validated!

  3. Good article, Murph! I hope you are right about most teachers already knowing their purpose/WHY. If so, with all the many distractions and challenges going on in education right now pulling teachers in many different directions, maybe there are some teachers that can use this article to reconnect with their purpose. I will say, I do disagree with you that teachers aren’t being allowed to pursue their purpose. Maybe this is their perception, but it does not have to be their reality! Please let me explain. Throughout my 30+ years teaching, I used my teaching and time in my classroom each day pursuing my purpose by trying to uplift, elevate, and empower my students to believe in themselves, adopt and/or maintain a growth mindset, always give their best effort, and try to approach each day looking for things to get excited and happy about . I NEVER once asked anyone or waited for anyone to give me permission to do that–or waited for the conditions to be just right for me to be able to pursue my purpose!….Instead, I just learned to filter all the WHATS (what I was being told to teach), WHENS (when to teach my lessons), and HOWS (being told how to teach my lessons) and anything else I was being mandated to do through my WHY(my purpose) each day. I would always try to keep my focus on my bigger mission while going about all the other business–which seemed to cut down on my students’ and my stress, help create a more positive, productive learning environment, and to be able to drive home each day still feeling tired as all hell but satisfied and fulfilled knowing that I was making a difference in my classroom! Over my long career, I saw many, many WHATS, WHENS, HOWS, and other challenges come and go…But my WHY never changed! I used it like my North Star to keep me on the path I entered this profession to pursue. I would encourage those of you still teaching to do the same thing!! There are many things teachers don’t have a lot of control over, but I STILL BELIEVE no one can ever take away your ability to teach with purpose (and to positively impact your students) each and every day!! I wish all of you still teaching the very best and the courage to always pursue your purpose for teaching with passion!!

      1. Hey, Murph! Absolutely, if you think it is worth sharing out. I think this is a very important topic you brought up for your readers and for all teaches to give some thought to. Nice work!! Bill

    1. I’m withBill on this one. I think it is possible to continue your WHY in the classroom while doing or modifying the district mandates to better serve students. I noticed he wrote this at 2 in the morning as well.

  4. I felt like you were reading my mind! Yes, to all of this but I also believe that many teachers tend to move aside all the mandates and squeeze in the nurturing and love that we have for our students. As a special ed. teacher, I know that my students are NOT at grade level and I don’t need another test to remind me of it but I pump them up by looking at how far they’ve come. Look at all that they’ve learned, look at how they’ve matured, etc. Scores go up slightly but their self-esteem and motivation goes up tremendously because they’re learning to believe in themselves and last time I checked, there’s no test that measures that.

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