What if one day teachers walked into their classrooms and all their students listened to their every word, followed every direction, handed in every assignment and passed every test? Would this be the perfect scenario for our schools? Some teachers would eagerly embrace this scenario; for them it would be a dream come true, allowing them to reclaim their true role as teachers. Some teachers might, however, feel that something important was missing; for them it would diminish their role as a teacher.
For teachers who often work in schools where they encounter significant behavioral issues and have many students who don’t cooperate, the relief that the perfect scenario could provide might blind them to other possible scenarios of education.
I once wanted a different job that I thought offered me so much more than the one I had. When I got that new job, I quickly discovered that it wasn’t what I wanted. Although I didn’t work there long, it helped me discover what I truly valued in the work I did. Here is the lesson I learned: Sometimes you first have to get what you desire, before you can really decide if it is really what you want and need.
Since the perfect scenario is not readily attainable, many teachers can stay stuck in a wishing and longing mindset that can hinder a deeper exploration of their values and what they want and need as educators. I believe, however, that if teachers were able to attain the perfect scenario, they might decide that it was not fulfilling and left them needing something else. Educators can play “what if” in order to examine some of their basic assumptions of teaching, learning and school itself: the “why” of teaching and learning.
Should the perfect scenario be the goal towards which we direct our efforts? If not, what is missing, or is there an alternative scenario to the “perfect one”? Although teachers might differ in their responses to the perfect scenario, exploring and discussing these differences in values and assumptions is preferable to having them hide beneath the surface, while still governing so much of how they think, feel and what we say and do as educators. Such discussions to revisit their basic purpose — the “why” of education — can be a starting point of meaningful school change.
Simon Sinek proposes that this basic question is the first one that all organizations need to ask. He explains in his book, “Start With Why,” that the most successful companies are the ones where their basic purpose, the reason for their very existence, is central to the thinking, acting and decision-making of every person in the organization. Knowing the “why” or basic purpose of any endeavor provides meaning and direction to everyone’s efforts. Not knowing “why” can result in people going in different directions once problems and difficulties arise. Organizations can easily go astray and never find their footing when they lack a strong sense of purpose and meaning. Some companies ultimately go out of businesses because they fail to connect to their “why. ”
Schools, however, face no such consequence. They open and close year after year with most of the people working in them seldom reflecting on their basic purpose or their “why.” It is easy for teachers and students to continue to do what they always do without ever asking “why are we here anyway.” Yet change initiatives, policies and programs are introduced and everyone is required to do more and more only making the basic “why” even more nebulous and obscure. No wonder that many schools seem more “stuck” than ever, as the demands for change increase from every direction!
When educators forget the importance of the “why” of education and schools, their students are introduced to an empty version of learning that fails to meet their human needs. As a result, many educators and students go through the motions of teaching and learning. Many students accept a version of learning that exists just to acquire the certifications for college and work and don’t find the passion and enthusiasm of learning that is connected to meaning and purpose. Many other students, however, don’t succeed on any level when their learning lacks meaning and purpose. In reality many current “school change” policies consist of trying to get the latter group of students who need meaning and purpose to become like the former group of students who accept the empty version of learning, as merely a means to an end.
In order for educators to provide meaning and purpose for their students, they first need to find it for their own teaching and learning. Although there are many demands and pressures that can limit time for reflection and professional dialogue, wise educators know that time devoted to discovering the “why” is a necessity; it lies at the heart of everything they do as an educator. It is the essential question that should drive the learning of educators and students.
Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at www.jim-dillon.com.