by James E. Ford
It's that time of year again. Summer has ended, and the dawn of a new school year has appeared. Teachers are preparing their classrooms and reviewing their rosters. Students are taking advantage of back-to-school sales and fulfilling their supply lists. And the hallways shine like new from a fresh summer buffing.
As educators prepare their hearts and minds for the endurance race of the academic year, we must also take time to reflect and remind ourselves of our purpose as educators. Revisiting the philosophical foundations of our work--understanding the 'why'--can provide much needed inspiration to sustain us throughout the year.
Last year while traveling to Singapore I met a man who cemented for me the importance of understanding why we do what we do. As part of a delegation of award-winning teachers from all over North Carolina, I was setting off to explore the world's most reputable education systems and learn from their successes. My first lesson began before even boarding the plane, sitting next to a gentleman also headed to Asia and making a connection in Chicago. We struck up polite conversation: asking what I do, where I was headed and why. I told him I was a teacher and explained my itinerary, but we hit a snag when I reversed the question and asked why he was traveling to Thailand. He had difficulty answering the big question, "Why"?
"I'm going to do missions for a year," he responded. I wanted to know more about these "missions," so I asked what he intended to do. Was he providing clean water, building schools, administering vaccines? I wanted to know the purpose of his work, what he was hoping to achieve. But my fellow traveler struggled to clarify his intentions and finally just ended up saying, "Ah, I'm just going over there to do good stuff."
Of course, I let him off the hook, but I couldn't shake that moment. There was something powerfully instructive about both what he said and what he didn't say. I couldn't judge him because I think that most of us in education can relate. Yes, we're educators. But I wonder: how many of us do know what gives us the steam to do our work, what powers us forward? We are clear about WHAT we do, without always knowing WHY.
While it may seem trivial to parse the difference between WHAT and WHY, to me, someone who is grounded in WHY operates from a totally different mindset. WHAT is missionary. WHY is mission-minded.
To be missionary, however noble, to act much like my friend on the plane, is simply "wanting to do good stuff." WHAT affirms us as individuals and makes us feel that we are making a positive contribution to a cause we can't fully explain. We volunteer at a local homeless shelter, donate toys for a Christmas drive, raise money for researching cancer, etc. Virtually nobody can deny that all of these things are good, righteous deeds and worthy of appreciation. They serve general purpose to aid someone through an action, but their effects can be hard to describe precisely.
For teachers operating from WHAT, this same thinking applies. When asked why we teach, we say things like, "Oh, I just love kids," or "I just want to give back," or "I wanted to make a difference." These are all generous ideas that come from a place of benevolence. If we're being honest, however, we also know that those responses do not really cut to the heart of the issue because they do not answer the burning question, WHY?
As with effective lesson planning, we have to begin with the end in mind. We have to set our sights on an intended greater purpose. We have to know what we hope to achieve. This is the fundamental difference between being a "missionary teacher" or a "mission-minded teacher."
Mission-minded teachers have well-defined objectives that they seek to accomplish. Their inspired and passionate work is aimed at the larger target continually in sight. Mission-driven teachers don't lose steam because they know they are a part of something greater, a vision larger than themselves. When you ask the mission-minded teachers why they teach, they say things like, "to break cycles of poverty"; "to improve the life chances of my children"; "to create a more informed public"; or "to help students become productive citizens." In short, their well-crafted educational philosophy pervades every aspect of their classroom with greater purpose. Transformative teaching--mission-minded teaching--has to be rooted and grounded in something deeper than a do-good mentality.
As you gear up for this school year, make revisiting your education philosophy part of your preparation. Write it down. Hang it up prominently. Let it provide inspiration to you for the moments when your enthusiasm or morale wanes. Perhaps the most important part of your school-year preparation will be finding for yourself the real reason why you teach.
James E. Ford is the 2015 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY).