This past week my friend and colleague shared a Ted Talk by Simon Sinek titled, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action.” Essentially in this talk Simon details the difference between successful companies and people, and companies and people who have the means to be successful but fall short. He uses the “Golden Circle” to describe this phenomenon.
The idea is simple, success starts with purpose, answering the question, “Why am I here?” or “Why am I doing this?” Identification of a purpose for your cause or life is essential in determining whether others buy into what you are doing. It is also a key factor in determining whether you actually believe in what you are doing. Successful people and companies have a clearly defined purpose or "why". On the flip side, companies or people who fizzle or burnout start, instead, with the question of what do I make and how do I make it? My mind keeps going back to this quote from Simon “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” People need to buy into you before they can wholeheartedly buy into your ideas.
For a concrete example look no further than the 2016 presidential election. If we look objectively at the way the campaigns were run, Donald Trump started with a purpose, he gave his followers the why. “Make America Great Again,” hate it or love it every single person in the United States knows that this was his “why,” this was his public platform. After that, he answered the “how’s,” Trump said we would make America great again by securing the border, by investing in infrastructure, and by pressuring companies to stay here. His “what’s” were not as concrete (many were straight up lies) but it didn’t matter because the base believed him and people could identify with the why, so the rest of the details could be ignored. As such he had voters turn out bigly, especially in states that he needed to win the Electoral College. On the other side, Hillary Clinton was all over the “what’s” she had a vision for what America should look like and even how it could be done but her “why” was elusive. I am sure she had great reasons but there was not one strong statement that resonated with the people.
So why have I written a post about avoiding teacher burnout yet have not mentioned teachers until now? The answer is simple, avoiding teacher burnout starts with finding a purpose; teachers must find their “why.” In college we did a little work to develop a teaching philosophy and a mission statement. After college much more of the work was focused on structures and strategies to engage students and keep the classroom well managed. First year teachers do very little to intentionally find their “why,” which is sad because it takes a few years of actually being a teacher to really develop your “why.” As a result many teachers in the early portion of their career are simply putting a hodge-podge of strategies together that never really coalesce into a singular mission. They are answering the “what” and the “how” but they lack the focus of the “why.” Without direction and a solid reason for doing everything that you do it just becomes overwhelming and success seems unattainable. However, once a teacher has found their purpose then they can build off of it. They can say, “Here is why I am a teacher, now what are some strategies and techniques I can use to improve my teaching that reflect on why I teach?” This method is much more effective than simply identifying what is wrong and trying 8 different methods of fixing it. Also when a teacher has a strong reason for teaching they can share that reason with students, parents, and administrators, this in turn causes these stakeholders to buy into what you are doing.
Finding your “why” is no easy task, it takes purposeful reflection and oftentimes your “why” is bigger than your career choice itself. After watching the Ted Talk I asked my colleague, “Well what is your ‘why’?” He said that his Christian faith was the main driver of his “why.” He believes that in order to live like Jesus he needs to be lifting up the less fortunate and he needs to provide them an opportunity for success. It just so happens that the way that he can achieve this life mission best is through his gift of teaching math. This is a pretty powerful motivator to keep powering through the tough times. It also provides a bigger focus other than just test scores. It just so happens that this teacher also has the highest median growth percentile score of any math teacher in our district. However, make no mistake, the focus is not on improving scores for him it is on improving people, the scores are an added bonus.
My purpose as a teacher is to continually provide opportunities for growth and an improved future life for students who might otherwise get left behind. This purpose has kept me teaching in a difficult, poor, struggling school for my entire career. When I think about moving on the school that I plan on moving to must be able to fulfill my “why,” if it does not then I will not make the move. In addition, this provides the motivation for me to work every day. A big reason for teacher burnout is that the teacher’s “why” does not match the needs of the school they are at or the teacher lacks a “why” all together. Teaching is much too difficult of a career to travel without a solid, well thought out, purpose.
If you are a teacher I encourage you to leave your “why” in the comment section below. I also encourage you to reflect on whether or not your “why” is driving your “hows” and “whats.” As always, thanks for reading, if you want new posts sent to your email simply sign up for the newsletter, it gets sent out on the first of each month!
English Language Development teacher attempting to bring some truth to the table.
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