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Find Your Why as an Educator

Dec 15, 2020

This is the first blog of my new Sustainable Teacher series and I feel like the pressure is on, much like it is the first day of school when those first impressions with students mean EVERYTHING. Ok, that’s a bit dramatic, but I want you to know how important your time is to me. 

As a teacher I know what it is to feel like every single minute counts and that if you aren’t productive and effective in every single minute, then you simply won’t stay afloat.

Whether you thrive under that kind of pressure or not, I’m here in this first episode of my brand-new podcast to be super effective with your time so that you get key takeaways that impact your teacher-life and then you get to move on - whether that’s implementing those strategies or focusing on another aspect of life.

I’ll start with a story, one that may trigger some teacher memories for you.

I started college in Columbus, Ohio - shout out to all my Westerville peeps (I ended up finishing back home in Cincinnati, but that’s another story) - and knew within my first year of college that I most definitely wanted to be a teacher.  I’m pretty sure I declared my major in second semester of freshman year. I don’t know about you, but I feel like that kind of decisiveness goes totally against the millennial handbook :)

Anywho… I’m in my first ever education class, and the professor is great. She’s young, hip, and very lively, and I’m sure inspired many educators before and well after me. Our main focus in that education 101 course was for us to determine our reason for getting into education.

Now… my 33-year old self is a total vision, mission, and goal setting nerd. SEriously, I geek out over that kind of stuff, and I’ll probably share some key ways that has helped me in both my personal and education life, but my 20 (more like 18) year old self was not having it.

If you know me, or ask any of my close friends, you know I’m an old soul. College and I didn’t always see eye to eye for multiple reasons, one of those was because I wanted to be in my career field, like, yesterday. I wanted to be a full-fledged adult, in my big girl job pronto, and sitting in a college course talking about WHY I wanted to be what I wanted to be cued up a big huge eye roll from this snarky lady.

So what did I do????… I totally bs’ed it, got the grade, and moved on to lesson planning and my school placements for field experience ASAP.

Fast forward 10 years and I’m well into my classroom experience and teaching career, and it dawned on me as I’m mentoring other teachers, leading teacher professional development and ed-tech committees, that having a solid foundation in your why for teaching couldn’t be more important in the everyday moments of a classroom.

When you’re mentoring, leading, and teaching kids who have more baggage than you could imagine, when you’re managing a classroom of students with more attitude than you could imagine, when you’re on the phone with a raging (or neglectful) parent, and the list of hard situations for teachers goes on… but what I mean here is this, when the going gets tough, knowing WHY you are doing this incredibly significant, literally life-changing work can do two things that I’ll outline for you here.

First, depending on how dire your teaching-life currently is (not that everyone’s is, but we didn’t get into this job to be rich, famous, or comfortable) Your WHY, and reminding yourself of your why could be the only thing standing in the way of you peacing-out tomorrow and becoming one of the statistics of teachers who leave within the first 5 years.

This leads me to a suggestion I would like to make for you, especially as we’re starting the new year at the time that this episode will air and we’ve started a fresh year after one that was possibly one of the worst in certainly our  lifetime.  

Figure out your why

There are tons of books on this that pertain to the business world and personal development, but not necessarily for educators.  Plus, it’s an awful long time between knowing your why as  first year college student, 5, 10, or even 15 years ago, and knowing it now.  

To get started in discovering your why, I would suggest thinking on your why when you are NOT in the heat of the school year - meaning do so over a longer break so you’re able to have some separation from you and the hustle of your classroom.  And mark it on your calendar to take a morning walk, an afternoon run, or even a happy hour with teacher friends where you all toss around ideas and remind yourselves why you got into the field in the first place. 

It doesn’t have to be some big chore - just do it when you have some quiet, alone time.

Know that your why when you started teaching, (if you’re unlike me and actually invested in those important things early on) it may be the same but could be completely different - either way, that’s totally ok, just don’t think that your why has to be any resemblance of what it was fresh out of college.

If you struggle to know your why, spend some time thinking about and reflecting on interactions you’ve had with certain students.  And I don’t necessarily mean to only reflect on the interactions you’ve had with students you’ve liked and clicked with.  Those are easy ones.  Instead, think of students you’ve had through the years who, looking back, you wish you could’ve had more impact with them.  Or, maybe the students who you did have impact on and how you had impact on them.  Was that the kind of impact you want to have on more students?

Which leads me to the next suggestion… During your reflection time, I want you to complete this sentence and actually write it down.  “The kind of impact I want to have with students is _______________.”

You could even add a blank in front of “students” to indicate which students you’d like to have impact on.

For instance, here was mine… “The kind of impact I want to have with my female high school students is one that empowers them to see their innate worth and builds their confidence to determine the future they would like to have no matter their background.”

Take this piece of paper with your why sentence, along with any other kind cards you’ve received from students or good memories of your impact that you’ve had, put it in your desk so that you’re able to actually remind yourself of your why and your impact when the going gets tough.

Now back to the second thing that identifying and then reminding yourself of your why can do…  the first suggestion of identifying and writing down your why when the going gets tough was in the moment and just shy of retroactive, right?!? This one is taking your why and allowing it to proactively influence your teaching career.

Your why should influence what you say yes to in your teacher life.  In fact it should empower you to have control over the impact you have and where you have it in a way that allows you to focus and even reach for a bit more sustainability.

Put another way, having focused impact allows you more sustainability so you can have more impact in the long run.

Here’s the truth… teachers who are really really great and work really hard to be great, statistically end up doing so for only a few years.  Whether it ends up they leave the classroom or they  stay and they just settle for no impact, burn out is taking teachers away in masses.

So I’ll say it  again… having focused impact allows you more sustainability so you can have more impact in the long run.

This means holding your yesses sacred and only dishing them out where it really counts for you and your why.

Now this is easier said than done.  Especially in your first couple years of teaching when you almost have to be a yes-man, saying yes to every ask your administration offers out of fear that saying no will somehow land you on the teacher-naughty list.  Ok, that’s a bit dramatic as well, but, hey, I understand feeling that kind of pressure, and I get the feeling of needing to say yes for your career’s sake… I lived that.  

I also get though that me saying yes to those things is what afforded me pretty much every opportunity I’ve had in my teaching career - well almost.

What I’m suggesting here is that when you’re asked to be on a committee, lead an initiative, or somehow have additional impact with students or your colleagues, that you ask yourself two things:

  1. Is this directly related to my why or somehow allow me to have  impact with my why?  OR
  2. Can my potential role here be one that I can tweak and/or use to have indirect impact related to my why?

Then allow your answers to guide your yes or no response.

So, why?  How will writing your why down, reminding yourself of your why, and using it to answer these questions help you?

It will help you filter your commitments.  

That’s it.  

It helps you make sure you're not overextending yourself, and it forces you to evaluate and reevaluate periodically throughout your career if you’re doing something that gets you going in the morning, even if it’s just one aspect of your daily routine.

Some examples of teacher why’s I’ve known of:

  • Showing young athletes the power they have on their mind and how  that influences their performance on the field.  Yes - teachers can find their why in one aspect of what they do and that may be coaching.
  • Reaching students who live in poverty and showing them that their road to success, although steeped in difficulty, is very possible and that I am here to support them anyway I can.
  • Showing students with a learning disability or behavioral struggle that I see them - I see their struggles and I don’t judge them for it, and I’m here to help them rise above their feelings of being less-than.

Whatever yours is, find it.  Let it be something that motivates you or at least strikes you to your core as something that you’re meant to do and that you know means way more than mastering a list of arbitrary standards.

So... I’d like to ask you, teacher friend, what’s your passion in what you do?  What’s the impact you want to have?  What’s your big why?

To get in community with other teachers reaching for more sustainable strategies come join us in our Sustainable Teacher Podcast Facebook Group and let us know YOUR WHY.

P.S.  If the message in this blog resonates with you and you would like more direct guidance in building a sustainable classroom, then the Sustainable Teacher 7-Day Challenge is for you.  It is a totally free challenge that we'll send you with 7 daily tasks that will help you take baby steps toward sustainability.

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