Re-Connecting with Your Why

finding your why as a teacher

Common Core State Standards.  Professional Development.  Evaluation.  Planning.  Data teams.  Standardized testing. And so on, and so on.  In education today, there are so many items on the ‘to-do’ list; so many competing ‘non-negotiables;’ so many, ‘I know your plates are full, but it’s just one more thing’s,’ that it is so easy to lose sight of why we entered this profession in the first place.

Indulge me in a brief exercise.  Conjure up a picture of yourself when you were the grade you teach right now.  Awesome hair? Fabulous outfit? Yeah – I see you.  Who were you then?  What were your dreams?  And what would that precious individual have told you about being a teacher? What would what s/he have said about the state you are currently in?  (and I’m guessing you are feeling some type of way about your situation, or you wouldn’t have clicked on this article).

This is my 20th year in education; 15 of those years were spent in the middle school classroom.  After all this time, I believe there are only 4 pillars to any role in the field of education, and if you can ground in them every day, burnout might be avoided.

Pillar 1:  Show up every day – physically, mentally, and emotionally.  

As teachers, we need you to be present.  We need you to be your very best self. Is that always possible? Hell no. Sometimes, we have to fake it.

This is a pillar that comes with an asterisk.  I know that every one of you readers has probably said at some point, ‘I’m not staying home, because even if I feel terrible, it’s better than having a sub.’  While I firmly believe that this is one of the pillars, I am also a staunch advocate of doing what you need to do in order to take care of yourself.  So why is this one of the pillars?  Because YOU MATTER.  Because the magic that YOU bring changes lives.

Pillar 2:  Hold high standards for yourself and your students.

A good friend of mine talks about the difference between saving and serving in conjunction with tigers.  There are many teachers I have met over the years who believe they are in the business of saving kids.  Saving kids from poverty, from violence, from bad relationships with adults; even saving the kids from themselves.  They think that teaching is like the movies- whether it’s Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds, they can swoop in and provide the life changing guidance at just the right moment that turns a potential dropout into a Harvard laureate.

This is disillusionment.  As my friend would say, ‘saving them from what?  There are no tigers here.’  Our kids need to be equipped with the skills to battle their own tigers – no matter in what form they come.  It is our job to prepare them fight with academic vocabulary and numeracy skills to knock down anyone who challenges them.  As we hold our students up to these high expectations, we need to maintain high expectations for ourselves.  When we show up this way, our students will, too.  Then, a feeling of joy begins to grow.

Pillar 3:  Love your students unconditionally.

Sometimes, this is the hardest one.  I love what Rita Pierson has to say about this very topic in her TED talk, because she is so honest, and so real. “Will you like all your children?  Of course not.  And you know the toughest ones are never absent.”  She then goes on to say, “You won’t like them all, and the tough ones show up for a reason. It’s the connection. It’s the relationships…We teach anyway, because that’s what we do.”  Knowing all of this, can you find something to love in each and every student?  Dig deep.  Look from all angles. Because when you enter your classroom from this place, everything starts to change.

Pillar 4: Know your ‘why’ for each day.

A dear friend and fellow adjunct professor always starts his sessions by saying, “Thank you for showing up today.  Because you always have a choice.” Every day, we have a choice for how – and if – we will show up.

I believe there are three ways to think about this. First, is the general why.

Ask yourself, why are you going to school today?  Your answer should not go back to the first pillar in that ‘it’s easier to go than to have a sub.’  This needs to be about you – your happiness, your goals. There is nothing selfish in this.  You shouldn’t be showing up because someone else needs you to do something.  Remember The Giving Tree, story?  That tree gave everything it had until there was nothing left.  We so often fall into this category, and I urge you to set boundaries.  If you are showing up every day because you love the work and you love the kids and you couldn’t think of anything else you would rather be doing with your life, then wonderful.  Or maybe you are showing up because today you are going to read a fantastic scene from your class novel, and you can’t wait for the conversation that will follow.  Or maybe you are showing up because you know that one of your students has been struggling with some stuff at home, and you want to make sure she knows there is an adult around her who cares.  Whatever the reason, make sure you know what it is.

You also have the choice in how you will show up.  Do you want to be brighter and shinier and happier?  Don’t wait for the world to change around you. You can make the choice to put out that energy, and like attracts like.  What you put out will come back to you.

Finally, you might be doing all you can to have a positive attitude and a clear intention, and yet there are still those days when the bell rings and you ask yourself, ‘why did I even bother?’  Yep, I’ve been there.  This is when I urge you to look back on your day and see where you can identify the moments of joy.  They might not be flashy and parade worthy, but trust me, they are there.   I’ll be honest; I’ve had days where the best part was coming home to my dog.  But I embraced that moment, and (Pillar 1), I showed up the next day (because of Pillar 2), with love in my heart (Pillar 3), and made the choice that this day would be better (Pillar 4).

So that’s it.  Just those four things.  If you can 1) show up every day, 2) hold high standards for your students and yourself, 3) love your students unconditionally, and 4) know your ‘why’ for every day, you can get through anything.

Dear Educator, know that we need you and your gifts now more than ever.  I can’t thank you enough for the work that you are doing.

Kristen Moreland is currently serving as Dean of Instruction at Manual High School in Denver after 15 years in the classroom, and in her 5th year as an Instructional Coach. A soul supporter, a language artist, and a social justice gladiator, she is committed to bringing humanity back to education.  Follow her on Twitter @kmorekin and on her new Instagram, @educatorsforhumanity.