Dr Justin Tarte, the director of teaching at the Union R-XI School District in Missouri recently tweeted out the above image. He asked all the new teachers in his district to write down their "why" and then seal it in an envelope. He told their managers to give it to them on a “rainy day”.
The “why” is the everyday teacher’s anchor. It’s the thing that stays put, even as the boat gets thrashed around by the sea or hit by a bolt of lightning. It’s the ancient looking thing, with crabs and fossils hanging off it. It’s underwater, invisible to the naked eye, but it's subtly holding everything above it in place. For that reason, it’s something easily forgotten when the boat is engulfed in a storm, which in metaphorical terms, most teachers experience most days. That’s why this idea of gently reminding teachers of why they are putting themselves through it all is simple but shouldn’t be scoffed at.
A wonderful time to remind teachers of their inherent “why” is the day after GCSE results day, a time that can be as exhilarating as well as devastating. A gentle text from a line manager saying, “this shouldn’t change your why. I still believe in your why and I still believe in you,” would go a long way for some.
Obsessing about stuff that doesn’t matter is the plague that afflicts many a teacher. The “why” does matter, perhaps more than anything else.
My own personal “why” is a mixture of the romantic and not so. My first “why” happened when I realised I could do it. I realised I could teach kids.
'Exhilarated by the challenge'
I first encountered this realisation when I was 18 years old through participating as a camp counsellor in Camp America. Thrust in front of groups of children in a foreign country with no prior experience and told to teach them things like rugby, football and cricket, it was a baptism of fire. If someone had told me to build a shed, it would have been different a story, but instructing and engaging with the young people seemed to come to me naturally. So my first “why” was “knowing I could do it”.
My second “why” followed: I really enjoyed it, too. I felt exhilarated by the challenge. The adrenaline of holding the ultimate responsibility, the “buzz” when something went right. This was set against the fear of something going wrong, an equally enticing mystery that pervaded the mind with an addictive quality. Behind all this was my personal belief system. As a wannabe Christian and a deep thinker, I always thought much about the “why” of “why we were here”. Although I still haven’t found a definitive answer, funnily enough, I’ve always felt the idea of making a difference to the lives of others is something I’ve elevated towards. In fact, that latter “why” was a source of frustration later in my career when I felt I was doing too much that wasn’t making a difference at all.
When I was 21, it was that same determination to “do something good for someone else” that led me to six months working in an orphanage in Tanzania and was one of the drivers for my PGCE application at the same time.
I think we should go much further than the gesture illustrated at the start of this article. Instilling an appreciation that every teacher will have a sincere “why” that will probably be built around inherently good principles is surely a useful starting point for all school leadership and management teams. Actively searching out the “why” from new teachers while also encouraging a continual reflection on this and giving them the time to do so could serve a much deeper purpose than is at first apparent: ensuring staff keep in mind the reason they turn up to work every day.
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