Simon Sinek is well known for his talks on finding your why. Most of you have probably listened to his talk or heard it referenced before. People in all walks of life and professions have used it to dig deeper into their career or life choices. As a teacher or school leader, with the future of our children on our hands, I think it is question worth asking, not just once, but over and over. Why do I teach? Why am I a school leader?
As I took a few moments to reflect this evening, another Why question came to me. At the school level – Why are students and teachers excited to be at my school? At the classroom level – Why are students excited to be in my classroom? From a parent perspective – Why are parents excited for their child to be at my school/in my classroom?
In my reflections, I began to recognize that I was more successful as a teacher when the answers to these two questions – why do I teach, and why are parents/students excited that I am their teacher – began to align. The questions may be slightly different now – why am I a school leader, and why are students/teachers/parents excited that I am their school leader – but the need to align the answers is just as important to the school’s success.
When I started teaching, I had big, general ideas about why I was there, how I wanted to connect with every student, love them all, show them that learning could be exciting. All fine. All relatively generic. Not much to really hold on to. Students were excited to have a young, male teacher who was excited to teach and would play with them at recess. Some parents felt the same, although many idea of mine were probably met with a healthy bit of skepticism. I quickly found out how tiring it can be to try to do something new and exciting every day, and how unsustainable that is for both the teacher and students. Excitement has value, but so does routine, reflection, and clear purpose.
Over time, you start to recognize that the only things that are really sustainable, are those that reflect the values at the core of your teaching. The pinnacle of this may have been my use of Genius Hour. For years I had attempted projects that focused on sparking creativity and confidence in learners, encouraging them to find their unique voice. When I found Genius Hour (I think in year 7 or 8 or my teaching career) it allowed me to combine many of the values I had defined in that time – process over product, student choice and voice, integrated learning. I was also at a point of my career where I knew what it would take to make it work. With the help of many colleagues, I had to develop the structure and resources for third graders, then later fifth graders, to see their ideas come to life. It was never perfect, but it was intentional, and the values were clearly embedded in the work. Students and parents could be excited for this and know that it was sustainable; that their child would be uniquely successful. I can honestly say that my two whys never aligned perfectly in my classroom. I doubt many teachers have reached that ideal. But I do know that every year I got closer to that goal.
As a first year assistant head of lower school, I had similarly ‘exciting’ ideas, but they weren’t yet aligned with the school’s or my why, or I hadn’t yet built up excitement among colleagues to sustain them. I say yet because they often could have been successful. Whether they required more thought and preparation or more support from others, they were rushed into existence and met an unfortunate demise. Interestingly, many are now coming back around in slightly different forms, when the community and I are more prepared to make them successful together.
A few years ago, I shared different ed tech tools with our faculty to spark and gauge their interest in what these tools offered. While teachers showed interest and some were ready to try them out, there wasn’t a clear vision for why this was necessary or a plan to support the work going forward. I had only built a weak foundation. Over time, and encouragement of a few key colleagues, some teachers started to try tools out, with little pressure to make them work perfectly. With the pandemic, these tools became a necessity, and teachers were ready to make them work. The rushed timeline led to clear challenges and stress, but the foundation was stronger and also provides us with an opportunity build on this work into the future.
Connecting our whys is about being truly authentic in our teaching and leadership. It is an alignment of values and actions. The way I lead should excite my colleagues, parents, and students, because they represent the values I hold dear and the confidence I have to live them out with others. Those values should be apparent from conversations, messages, and actions.
This post was a bit of a wandering exploration for me. It felt like a very simple idea at the beginning and a very simple idea here at the end, but exploring the way I’ve arrived at this thinking felt a lot more complicated. As I reflected today on this post and how I wanted to share it, I was reminded of the phrase – Integrity is when your actions meet up with your words. What I am really thinking about though is my actions meeting up with my values. And finally, my actions should not only meet up with my values, but also inspire those I work with.
Thinking back to the most influential educators that I have worked with, they have absolutely met that standard. Their words, actions, and values were aligned, and it was exciting and inspiring to work with them because that alignment was so clear.
I honestly do not love where this post is ending. I think there is much more for me to consider and explore. There is a lot a started to write and deleted, because I started to get lost and tried to find the trail again. I don’t know if people will read this and say, “Of course, that is obvious. You didn’t need to write it out,” or, “Okay, I get it. What’s the big deal?” or, “Right. Thanks for that reminder.” This blog, after a brief stint at the beginning in which I was very concerned about who would read it and how I could get followers, is a place for my reflection, and I’m glad I explored the idea. Maybe this is the post that generates more response than others, but probably not. For those of you who read it, thank you, regardless of your response.