Classroom Culture Teacher Experience

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!

Classroom Culture

The Truth about Losing Control in Your Arts Classroom

I have a hard truth to speak about today: Control. 

When we’re uncovering our own values and motivations, sometimes we stumble upon something… icky. But when we know the truth about ourselves, that is when we can begin to make real change. And for me, that means admitting to myself that my default reaction to chaos, messiness, or any uncertainty is to try to control it. 

Let’s admit something unpleasant: There’s something enjoyable about feeling powerful in front of a room of students. I am in charge. They have to do what I say, just because I say it. If I want, I can make my classroom be quiet… focused… controlled. I want my classroom MANAGED!

Well, then we get into the classroom and realize we have lost control. There’s no focus, no quiet, no listening. And that is insanely frustrating! Classroom management is often the most draining part of being a teacher.

But the problem with thinking we’ve lost control as a teacher is… we never had control in the first place. 

Connection is what we need as teachers, not control. Students want and need to feel that someone cares about them as a person, not like they are being policed. There are no fast and easy ways to make meaningful connections with your students. It is a constant process that begins with:⁠⁠

– Self-reflection⁠⁠

– Unburdening yourself from stereotyping⁠⁠

– Starting a culture shift in your classroom⁠⁠


Before you can really know your students, you have to understand yourself. What identities are most important to you? What drives you in your work? What are your key values? Then you can know how you relate (or don’t) to your students.


When you’re getting to know your students, get to know them as individuals. Unburden yourself and your students from the expectations you have about them based on their demographic information.


Demonstrate how you want your students to listen and react to each other. Students learn these skills from you whether you do so explicitly or not– so be aware of how you show your willingness to connect and care.

Classroom culture is complex— but it doesn’t have to be complicated. I’m here to help your school or nonprofit organization make positive change in your arts programming. Don’t just “do good”— do The Critical Good.

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