In any organization, as it develops, grows, changes, and evolves, the mission of the institution can alter and change. This can be a natural progression and part of what makes an agile group successful. It is also true that as change happens, the original vision for why it all began can get lost and forgotten.
This has also happened in schools. We are good at using textbooks, integrating technology, and differentiating instruction. We can find amazing Pinterest fonts and spend our salary on Teachers Pay Teachers. But in the end, do we remember why we are doing all of it?
Finding Your Reason
As a school works to improve, it’s easy to become distracted by the many available options. All of these options, which we will call the “what” of the process, are great to choose from. There are so many good choices that it can make your head spin.
If that all sounds a little too familiar, it is good to take a step back and think about how this all could look. How it could change the future and how it could change teaching and learning.
But even before that, the best question to ask first is why are we doing it in the first place? Too often, schools and districts don’t start with this question first before they implement change, and by doing so, fail to inspire others in the confidence of the vision.
Focus on “Why” Before “What”
This concept comes from the “Golden Circle” that Simon Sinek popularized in his book Start with Why, which first originated from his popular TED talk with over 40 million views. The video explains the concept better than I could here, but the premise is fairly simple. Too many times, organizations start with the “what” of what they do instead of starting with the “why.” We should start by asking (and answering) the question, “Why does our organization exist?”
For teachers, this actually may be a harder question to answer than one might think—it was for me, at least. Why do schools exist? What is their purpose? Our purpose is not to differentiate, or create great bulletin boards, or even to find catchy mnemonic devices. Our purpose starts and ends with our students. But even with that response, it goes deeper. Is our purpose to prepare them for the jobs of the future, to make them well-rounded individuals, to create moral human beings that will contribute to society, to meld them into the great melting pot of our country? All of these could be right answers, but without knowing the starting point and the foundation, schools can struggle with the how and the what of education.
If this is so critical, why aren’t more schools focusing on the “why” of their mission? One of the challenges in doing this for schools is the perpetual nature of what we do. There isn’t really a great starting point as 99% of schools have been operating for a number of years, many even decades. I have known a few brand-new schools that started because of enrollment increases, but these are few and far between. Rather, the norm is that schools are institutions with individuals who have been part of them for years. Many of these people, while very devoted to the institution, may not have a lot of interest in seeing it change much.
This poses a bit of an issue. We love and respect loyalty, and value the expertise of those who have learned a lot before us. By sharing their wisdom, our profession is that much stronger. But the ideal would be for our teachers to be loyal to the mission, to the vision, to the why—but not necessarily to the institution or the building itself.
Bringing Everyone on Board
Creating that kind of loyalty to the mission is, of course, easier said than done. Changing beliefs and getting individuals to agree on a “why” can be hard. It may take a lot of time and it certainly isn’t a one-time thing. The mission and vision of an organization is like a plant that needs tending to often; not just a single reminder at the start of the school year.
There are obvious challenges to getting focused on a “why” and then staying focused on it. For leaders, the most critical step is believing that it matters. I know some leaders who don’t see the importance in laying this kind of ground work. Personally, I feel it is essential.
As Sinek mentions in the video, being able to articulate a strong “why” from the organization creates a compelling vision and motivation for those within and outside the group. If we all know why we are pulling in the same direction, and we can see how our work together pays off, it is easy to bring others in who want to be part of the success. It also gives those joining the team a clear understanding of what this group is all about.
So, if you ask yourself what your group or school’s “why” is, and you don’t have a clear answer, it’s time to start a conversation to help get there. Success in all that we do starts with a “why?”
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