Before You Know How, You Have to Know Why

Christine Ravesi-WeinsteinBlog, Engage Better, Lesson Plan Better, Manage Better, Personalize Student Learning Better

In This Post:

  • The importance of determining your purpose in education.
  • How discovering your why can change your practice and have greater impact on your students.
  • The impact of leading with purpose, especially on students with anxiety.
  • Educational leadership and modeling your why.

From our professional lives to our personal lives, there are so many things that we find ourselves needing to do. Whether it’s lesson planning, grading papers, talking to parents, booking vacations, or going food shopping, life is full of “what’s nexts?

We live our to-do lists; a constant, steady stream of requirements, obligations, and deadlines. The length of our lists will vary, but the pressure to complete them won’t. The pressure is high and relentless. 

Beyond the “what’s nexts,” we often think about the hows:

  • How am I going to design this lesson?
  • How should I go about grading this project?
  • How do I want to contact this parent?
  • How do I want to book this rental?
  • How should I budget for these groceries?

When one task is flushed out and completed, it’s on to the next. Eventually, we will close our eyes, rest our weary heads and sleep, probably not enough, just to wake up the next day and do it all over again.

If you don't know your why, they explained, then teachers, students, and any community stakeholders are not going to buy-in to your what. Click To Tweet

But even amidst all the thought we put into the what of our lives, the thing we never seem to make time for is the why.

  • Why am I designing this lesson?
  • Why should I grade this project?
  • Why do I want to connect with this parent?
  • Why do I want to book this vacation home?
  • Why do I need to go food shopping?

The Value of Your Why

Knowing the why is the foundation of every what and how. If we understand why we’re delivering a lesson, then how we’ll deliver it and what we’ll do in that delivery becomes easy. In fact, when we know the why, the task becomes less of an obligation and more of a desire. We move from having to do something to wanting to do it. 

This summer, I was lucky enough to attend the NASSP National Principals’ Conference in Boston. I went to numerous keynotes and instructional sessions over the two and a half days and was able to engage with talented professionals who had experience, expertise, and passion. The content delivered was practical and timely, data-driven and vetted.

I learned about restorative justice practices, how to survive being an assistant principal, standards-based grading, and the need to welcome technology and social media into our classrooms rather than resist it.

But within all of this content, the biggest takeaway for me was a theme weaved into every presentation I saw: Know your why. 

Presenters like Baruti Kafele and Dr. Greg Dale spoke about passion and drive. They talked about the need to know and believe in the why of what and how you lead. If you don’t know your why, they explained, then teachers, students, and any community stakeholders are not going to buy-in to your what. 

“Selling” Your Content

Being an educator is no different than being in sales. In sales, the goal is to get the consumer to buy the product. But the consumer can get the product anywhere, so why, then, should they buy it from one particular salesman? What about the product makes it irresistible, something the consumer believes in and needs? The answer is…the person selling it.

Consumers aren’t buying a product. Sure the product costs money, and their money supports the figure on the price tag. But what the consumer is really buying is the salesman and his story. Is he relatable? Is he believable? Is he trustworthy? If the consumer can answer yes to each of these questions, then he/she is more likely to buy the product from that salesman.

Education is not much different. Sure the consumer, in this case, the parents and students, are not literally “buying” something from the teachers. But they are being “sold” on what they are teaching them. When the teacher is relatable, believable, and trustworthy, the student is more likely to learn from that teacher, to “buy” their product.

None of these characteristics are born in a teacher out of what they are doing, or how they are doing it. They are born out of why they are doing it. 

Knowing Your Why Can Transform Your Practice

All students have a better chance of succeeding when their teachers articulate the why, but students with anxiety will achieve more. Anxious students need to be sold on a teacher’s why even more than others.

Too often, educators encounter students experiencing the symptoms of mental illness and immediately resort to figuring out how they can help this student. But instead of asking how we can help a student suffering from anxiety, we should instead ask, “why do I need to support this student?”

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No matter what your why is, the passion affixed to the answer is going to permeate your interaction and translate to the student. Whether your why is that all students deserve a chance to reach their potential, or that you want to empower and instill passion in young people, a belief in your why will radiate through to your how and what.

As a teacher, you become believable to all your students, not just those suffering from anxiety. You’ve “sold” them on your product.

Knowing your why leads to:

  • Authenticity. Being authentic lets students see imperfection in all areas of life; presentation, speech, preparedness, just to name a few. In a digital world where students are inundated with images of perfection, they must understand that such an existence only appears in the filtered, edited, uber-controlled platform that is the internet. Spending so much time in a world doctored to represent happiness and success through an unflawed lens, students lose sight of reality and authenticity. As student anxiety increases to keep up with the perfection seen through their devices, students need educators who are authentic and imperfect. 
  • Conversation. When you know your why, you can communicate expectations to students rather than just rules and requirements. Conversations lead to empathy, and empathy leads to perspective. Students with anxiety need educators to have perspective and give them a chance to feel comfortable expressing what they are feeling. When educators know their why, they open up healthy, necessary conversations with students. 
  • Trust. Building trust is at the core of every positive relationship an educator makes with a student. When educators are driven by a why, they are more likely to be cerebral, to listen, and to ask questions. All of these things are necessary for students with anxiety. They are too often emotional and finalistic. Having an adult in their life they can trust will sell them on their teacher as more than just an educator, but a mentor too. 

Leading With Your Why

Educational leaders wear many hats. They manage, supervise, discipline, and evaluate, among other things. Each of these tangible tasks seems disconnected, but only when you look at each action item as a what and a how. However, when you focus on your why as an educational leader, then each task becomes connected. They are all being done to achieve the same goal. 

Students with anxiety get overwhelmed easily. All of the whats in their world can become crippling. But we can redirect students to the why of each task they need to accomplish by setting an example and leading with our own why. Then educators can get students to see that each job is just one small, attainable goal towards their more significant endeavor: the why of their learning. 

Thank you to NASSP for an excellent conference this summer, and to every presenter for sharing his/her expertise; you made each of us witnesses to your very own whys.

About Christine Ravesi-Weinstein

Christine Ravesi-Weinstein currently serves as a high school Assistant Principal. She previously served as a high school science department chair for four years and classroom teacher for 15 years. She is an avid writer and educator and is passionate about bridging the two with her advocacy for mental health.

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