3 Ways to go Beyond Teachers’ “Why”

As a teacher, knowing your “why” – your motivation, your purpose, your mission statement– is incredibly important. In fact, I’d call it essential! It is the basis for how you navigate each day, each school year, and through your career. Teachers are people (somehow we forget this!) and therefore are not neutral– we all have our own unique perspectives, backgrounds, and viewpoints. Being secure in your “why” is the start of being an ethical and effective educator; it means knowing your own reality so you can more easily distinguish your perspective from others’. 

But! Simply knowing your “why” is not going to solve all your problems. Knowing your “why”, or even living true to your “why” is not going to help you make authentic connections with your students, identify engaging materials and activities, or fill out your lesson plans. It is not a magic wand. Knowing your “why” can make your job seem (and feel) easier, but it doesn’t actually make your job easier all on its own. 

Your “why” is only your perspective, but your classroom is so much more complex than that. I call the people and policies that impact your classroom an ecosystem. In an ecosystem, if one thing changes, the effect is felt all over the system. If you’ve dealt with breaking in a new principal, you know exactly what I mean. Each of the members of your program’s ecosystem– your students, admin, coworkers, families, community leaders, and more– has their own “why.” Those motivations explain their actions, and those actions impact your classroom. 

Here’s an example of how knowing your “why” isn’t enough: If you are very much motivated by the idea of maintaining the traditions of classical music, but no one else in your school is, then by chasing only your own “why”, you are going to be running an uphill battle with disinterested students. Or, say you are personally motivated by achievement (hey, me too!) and so, by being true to your “why”, you engage your students in several competitions and juried events annually. But, if your students and families value collaboration over individual pride, your program won’t click with them. 

So what can an arts teacher do?

1. Listen and respond accordingly. Listening is absolutely the bedrock of building trust and community. Show that you are listening by making necessary changes.

2. Be in the room where it happens. Become a part of your school’s community by being present as much as possible. That could mean joining a committee, attending sports games, or going to board meetings. Be there to be top of mind for your ecosystem, but more importantly, to show you are there to listen and be in community with them. You are struggling alongside them, invested in what they are invested in, and actively searching for equitable solutions too.

3. Ask questions that uncover their “why.” This can happen in periodic student surveys, at parent/teacher conferences, or in admin meetings. It might sound like, “Is that something that is important to you?” or “What is the motivation for this change?” or “What is the impact/outcome you are hoping for?” 

When you understand not just your own motivations, but the motivations of everyone in your ecosystem, you can create a classroom culture and curriculum that inspires, supports, and celebrates everyone. Knowing your “why” is important– but so is knowing everyone else’s “why”. It is the first step in making changes that benefit the entire ecosystem, which, I bet, is probably close to your own “why.” 

Go Beyond!

This is not an easy nor short process. But, I can help simplify it. My job is to guide you and your arts team toward this ground-up and values-based philosophy for more flow and ease in every arts classroom. Stop hoping that it will “get better next year” and let’s make a plan to make sure every year is better than the last!

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