He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.Friedrich Nietzsche, Maxims and Arrows
Teaching in a perfect world would be difficult enough. But teaching when bad things happen — the students aren't motivated, the parents are angry, the administrator is out of touch, the colleagues aren't kind, the policies are terrible — can be darn near impossible.
And yet, there are these people who seem to flourish in teaching despite hard circumstances. They don't lose hours per week to soul-killing complain-fests. They aren't worse spouses or parents because of their jobs.
What is it with these people? Well, what it is is resilience.
In Part I, we got the bird's eye view on resilience.
Now, let's examine the second pillar of resilience: a strong sense of purpose.
To start us off, let's ensure a common understanding of the word purpose. Here's Oxford's take:
The reason for which something is done.
The reason for which something is created.
The reason for which something exists.
How do we build a strong, deep, enduring sense of purpose as teachers?
Purpose Tip 1: Bring yourself back to Everest, constantly.
I've written and spoken for years on this silly thing called an Everest sentence. There's the start-of-year, “defining your Everest” activity. There's my extended reflection on my own Everest, several years old. And here, you even see video of me presenting an insanely fast “Ignite” talk on the topic at an NCTE conference several years ago.
This idea of us having a clear and ready definition of Everest is so fundamental to how I think about teaching that it's the start of every single PD experience I lead, whether it's the experience I give in These 6 Things (you can read the first chapter for free here — no opt-in required) or in my online courses.
Why? Isn't it a bit elementary, constantly coming back to a single sentence summary of what it is that we're hoping to achieve in a year?
No. Constantly coming back to why our job exists — what it is that we hope our job amounts to — achieves for us something that Greg McKeown calls “clarity of purpose.” Here's Greg in his addictive book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less:
Clarity of purpose… consistently predicts how people do their jobs. The fact is, motivation and cooperation deteriorate when there is a lack of purpose. If a team does not have clarity… problems will fester and multiply. When there is a lack of clarity, people waste time and energy on the trivial many.from McKeown's book, Essentialism
When we run our teaching life on default, we end up doing everything besides thinking deeply and consistently about what our job ultimately boils down to. We chase Twitter feeds and blog posts and latest books by So-and-So Guru. And when the frenzy overwhelms us enough, we turn to self-destructive habits like over-drinking, overworking, overeating, and over-complaining.
So write that Everest sentence, put it somewhere you'll keep seeing it, talk about it with your students, share it with your colleagues, and so on. Knead it into the dough of your heart.
Purpose Tip 2: Affirm your values.
I've heard of people doing the “define your Everest” activity with students, and I think that's awesome. Once in a while, I do things like that with my students as part of our writing warm-ups series.
But here's a writing exercise for you and your students that cultivates a strong sense of purpose and has some serious research behind it . The intervention is really simple:
Step 1: Students pick a value or two that is important to them.
Step 2: Students describe why those values are important to them, focusing on their thoughts and feelings and not worrying about grammar or spelling. (In other words, the intervention aims at provisional writing.)
The crazy thing with this study is that, two years later, the researchers found that the students most likely to experience school as threatening (e.g., minority students) were doing significantly better academically than like students who hadn't experienced the intervention.
And this really teaches us something about how the purpose pillar of resilience works, doesn't it? When we experience threat — and for many of us, this happens every day at work, both inside and outside of education — it seems to be that there's something about us human beings that draws from our internal reservoir of purpose. When that reservoir is dry, the threat crushes us. But when the reservoir is full — and the Cohen and Sherman intervention above seems to suggest that filling it doesn't take Herculean effort — the threat finds us tougher.
It finds us more resilient.
(Here's the Character Lab page that explains the intervention. It includes a pretty pdf.)
Purpose Tip 3: Tell your students why you became a teacher.
Bill Damon has been researching and writing about purpose in young people for decades. His book, The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling In Life, is the definitive guide on the topic.
I once heard Damon say something like this: if every teacher spent five minutes per school year telling their students why they became teachers, it would immediately start improving the development of purpose in young people. This would be powerful, Damon suggests, because every young person in school would immediately have an additional role model of what it looks like to be a purposeful adult.
We can glean an action from this in our classrooms, of course: let's take five minutes tomorrow to tell kids, briefly, why we became teachers. It could get uncomfortable or be awkward if we're not used to doing this kind of thing. But we could do it.
We can also glean a path of action for ourselves, as we seek to cultivate a strong sense of purpose professionally. Who are our role models of purpose? Who are the people we are listening to or reading or studying or conversing with who are driven by a deep sense of mission or purpose or calling?
Remember, remember, remember: long-term flourishing
Perhaps the single most important thought I've developed on this blog is the idea that schooling exists to promote the long-term flourishing of young people. The more I study long-term flourishing, the sturdier this idea gets in rooting me into the deep, underground river of purpose that flows beneath every teacher who has ever taught. It's our first principle and our one enduring standard. It's rooted in science.
I can't encourage you enough to bring yourself back, again and again, to the fact that teaching is timelessly beautiful and noble and good. It's one of the oldest human acts. All of civilization is built on it. The survival the species is built on it. The health of society depends on it.
I'll close with this story. My dad has been one of my great teachers in life, but professionally he works as an engineer and a leader. As an adult, I've connected with my dad more and more around work. And one thing my dad has shared is that the professional success he's experienced has been far less fulfilling to him than the people he has had the chance to mentor and lead. It's that teaching part of my dad's work that fills up his bucket the most.
You and me don't get paid the highest salaries. We don't get high praise in public. We're far more likely to receive complaints than compliments.
But every single day we get to stand in front of and alongside young people and invest in their long-term flourishing. This is our job. We actually get paid to do this!
It is awesome. Many of the circumstances aren't, but beneath all of that there is an inherent beauty and awesomeness to teaching.
That's not an idea to think on once in a while. It's not an idea that the daily rush of things invites us to meditate on. But it's an idea that, if we want to become resilient people, we must constantly wrestle back into the foreground of our minds.
Much love to you, my colleague.
- Geoffrey Cohen (Stanford) and David Sherman (UC Santa Barbara), in their wonderfully readable but academically titled “The Psychology of Change: Self-Affirmation and Social Psychological Intervention.” It's in the 2014 Annual Review of Psychology. Here's a pdf.