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How Purpose Can Ground a Struggling Teacher

Why are you doing whatever you're doing? Why are you a coach or a leader or a teacher? When was the last time you sat down and reflected on and talked about your why—your purpose?

There is tremendous power in being aware of and operating from your purpose. It can feel like the switch that you flick that shifts a moment from one of challenge to one of learning.

A few weeks ago, I sat down with an experienced teacher I'll call Roberto who reached out for some coaching. He was having major doubts about his decision to take a new position at a school that is really struggling. He'd found the school to be in far worse shape than he originally thought and he regretted his decision to leave a school he'd loved teaching in. He spoke at length about his perception that the staff weren't friendly, that the principal had no idea what he's doing, that there were few functioning systems in the school and a lack of support from the central office.

As he learned about the behavior management system the school was implementing, he felt a deep conflict with his own values around managing students. He also found himself teaching 140 students, across seven 50-minute periods, without a bathroom break for almost four hours.

"I can't imagine staying there all year," he told me, "but I also can't imagine quitting."

Roberto is in a difficult place. He has a hard choice to make. His complaints are valid and concerning (teachers get bladder infections more than any other professional. It's unconscionable that a teacher not even have a bathroom break). And, in order to make the decision he faces, he needed to reground himself in his purpose, his why.

When we sat down to talk, Roberto's affect was flat. He seemed to have very little energy. "Think back to last May when you agreed to take this position," I asked. "What drew you to it? What motivated you?" Roberto spoke about his desire to help kids who had been underserved, who hadn't had access to the kind of schooling he had as a middle schooler, and who needed an effective teacher. At first, his response was a bit robotic—it felt like he said what he knew he should say.

I asked: "Tell me about one kid whom you felt like you really served last year. What impact do you think you had on him or her?"

As Roberto talked about how Graciela had learned to write a strong essay in his class, his energy picked up. He became more animated and descriptive. He spoke about how English Learners struggle to pass the California High School Exit Exam because of their weak writing skills and about how he knew Graciela would pass.

"So why are you doing what you're doing? Why are you a teacher?," I asked again. As Roberto spoke, he became more animated. It was as if he woke up.

The question of whether or not Roberto can have a big impact on the kids in the school he's currently teaching at lingered. It remains to be answered. However, what shifted in this conversation was Roberto's underlying emotional state, just slightly, into one that was more anchored, more grounded in his purpose. This shift helped his thinking clarify. "I guess what I need to think about," Roberto said, "Is whether I can have the impact I want to have at this school, and what impact it would have on my students if I quit half way through the year."

Although Roberto left the conversation still holding many of the same questions he had when he arrived, he felt more energized to explore them. As we parted, he said, "It just felt so good to remember why I got into this profession. It's been a while since I went back to that mindset that got me into this and it feels good."

We need to do what feels good more often, and often what feels good is taking a step back, or out, and remembering why we're doing what we're doing.

Recently, I reflected on what compels me and how I respond to what I feel is my purpose in life. Such reflection also helps me make decisions—when I have various options for things to do or choices to make, if I'm clear on why I'm doing what I do, I can make those that most closely align. We have limited time and limited energy, and we feel better (and usually do better work) when our purpose drives how we spend that time and energy.

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