Starting with why.

I have been frustrated with myself lately.

I have been unable to commit or connect to a specific direction and dig deep into one problem, solve it and move on.

I have been watching all the “good stuff” fly by, thinking: “Yeah I should really look into that.” I have taken some feeble stabs at it; I do have a journal full of musings and a ridiculous number of links in my Diigo. Yet, I feel detached and puzzled by all the shiny new tools and ideas.

I guess some of it is just plain summer time relax mode, but the fuzziness felt thicker than regular summer brain fuzz growing on the grey matter.

Now finally, after some serious angst, I can identify the source of this brain fog…

I am no longer certain or clear on the “why” of school and more personally, on the why of the (my) classroom in the lives of students. Perhaps this is just too much for summer ice tea sipping time, but I felt mentally paralyzed and stagnant in this zone of not knowing.

As I refer back to the past whys from my teaching life, many of the whys I find are “cause the system says so”, “cause the curriculum says so”, “cause the principal sent me to a ProD session on it”,  “cause I need to raise my test scores” or even “so I can survive”.

None of these galvanize me into action any more. Even a little bit.

This confusion around the basic question of the why of my classroom (I say my now as I think through it, but it will become ours) was an obstacle course, long and tough, that I have been struggling to work through and still am. After a solid month of fairly unproductive reflection, reading, and self discussion, I finally have some faint but promising whys starting to solidify into something concrete, but just.

This process of reflection or big picture thinking also has me asking: when and how do I give students the opportunity to think deeply and ask why for themselves? Do I always demand something concrete of them that justifies our time together? Do I push them to be “productive” for the sake of self validation?

I am getting closer to defining the why of my role in the classroom for the year ahead. And  the rest (the how and the what)  should be be easy, right?

I do know my whys won’t be… to serve the system, or to serve the curriculum, but will be to serve students, my students.

What is your why? Do you have any clues to share?

8 thoughts on “Starting with why.

  1. Your post is very timely for me. I will be starting to use standards-based grading this school year, and I anticipate some push-back from my students and their parents. I want to start the school year by asking my students WHY: why are you in this class, why are you in high school, why do you think I’m here? I want them to realize that they need to find their “why”. If my students truly are only in school because “it’s the law”, or if they think I’m only there for the money, then we have some exploring to do. I hope eventually some of my students say that they are in school, and in my classes, because they want to know more about the world they live in, that they want to know more about themselves, that they want to have some eye-opening experiences, and that they want to stretch, grow, and think. And why am I in the classroom? For exactly those same reasons!

    • Yes, why? is a very powerful question, but as I have realized it takes some time to sort out. I am just finishing Simon Sinek’s book, Start with Why and this really pushed my thinking in this area. I have often started the year explaining my why to students and asking them the same question. Their responses range from “cause my best friend is taking this course” to “I need it for university/college” or even “My Mom told me to”.
      I am really struggling with the transition from the old why of my function of curriculum deliverer to….something as yet undefined. I dabbled with SBG last year and did have some growth in this area. Using it was very revealing, like peeling back the layers of an onion, and hope to make some more in roads with it again this year.
      Thanks for sharing!

  2. It’s funny, since starting the book, Start With Why, I, too, have been going through a lot of self-reflection and wondering why. Not just a surface why, but a real WHY. A deep down Why?

    I will keep you posted on how it is going, but I do plan on doing a blog post soon about it.

    Keep pondering, keep reflecting, it will come. At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.


    • Thanks Tia, I look forward to hearing your reflections. It is such a luxury to have deep reflection time and re-consider the big questions we don’t get a chance to during the school year. The book has given me lots of great stuff to consider, I am happy you posted about it, sharing is magjic, what did we do before blogging?

  3. I think I’m asking the “why” in two contexts. The first is “why do I do what I do as a teacher?” Why do I teach? What is the purpose? Is that purpose constantly evolving? I’m not trying to give you more reading Carolyn (so please feel free to ignore these posts) but the following blogger has really had me thinking about things since this post back in April:
    This guy has really been questioning his purpose as an educator and you might find his thoughts interesting (or maybe you’ve already read them!). His posts on “Understanding” and “New Journey” are pretty awesome too. So if you brain isn’t full enough already…

    My second “Why” is for the purpose of education. What is the role of the education system in B.C. (Canada/the world…) in the year of 2012? What will it be 10 years from now? 20? What do we need to give our children? What changes in our education system are sustainable? Of course I would like my personal purpose to align with the overall purpose of a greater good. Whew…too much thinking for the summer!!

    I do like your last line: “I do know my whys won’t be… to serve the system, or to serve the curriculum, but will be to serve students, my students.” and I love teachingformastery’s suggestion that students must find their own “why”.

    • Hi Naryn, thanks for the comment, it is serious brain over load with these big questions! But I am loving the book, I think he speaks to many key aspects of human nature that we are ignoring in education at the moment. The most glaring of these as we have both noticed, is the very apparent lack of WHY in our school system right now.. I feel pretty clear with my personal WHY, thank goodness 🙂 But the WHY that is nagging at me, is the WHY of kids coming to spend their days at school and in our classrooms, what is the big WHY for that? And that is just it, is the why to suit now, or 10 years from now. I do feel though that the WHY of most of our systems is about 50 years behind (I think some textbooks are).

      Thanks for the link…that is exactly the direction I am thinking of. I am of the “more is more” camp, I have never have too many resources, no such thing 🙂 I wanted to generate a list of WHYs (like he has written) for my classroom and get them up on the wall somewhere. I have to get on that list!!
      Happy reading 🙂

  4. Those “why” questions can be very dangerous. Dangerous to ask but more dangerous if you have no answer for ’em, not even a weak rationalization. Hopefully that’s when teachers hang it up and retire. Otherwise, your just on a treadmill going through the motions. You might still be effective, but don’t get the right satisfaction out of the job.

    A colleague of mine reminds me from time to time that it’s all about the kids. The answer then is obvious… Because they can’t do it by themselves. Or maybe more correctly, Because I can make it easier for them – wait! Making it easier is not the goal, in fact we want them to have to – to want to – work harder. We strive on because we want to get them to be more effective in their learning… “get it” better than they would have without us, so they eventually move on with a richer skill set. Then they can go on to save the world thanks to us.

    Just my two cents.

    • But don’t many teachers end up on the treadmill that you speak of, none the less, as a means to maintain stability and balance in their professional lives? Now especially the “why” that might have been true 15 years ago, is no longer valid and this confuses and overwhelms teachers, so they go into treadmill mode as a means of survival.
      Yes, I think we teachers need to connect students to their own learning, empowering them to take charge over it. I think to do this, we teachers first must become empowered and highly connected to our own learning, and then we appreciate what this implies for our students.
      Thanks for sharing 🙂

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