The Heart of Teaching: Quick Activities to Reconnect Educators with their Whys
We come to work to inspire people to do the things that inspire them.
~ Simon Sinek,
Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
February is a notoriously difficult month for educators. Winter break is a distant memory. Spring break is many weeks away. The weather is yucky. We’re keenly aware of the important learning goals we still have for our students and the limited amount of time remaining to achieve these goals.
This is a perfect time to reconnect with our personal whys, our purposes for choosing to be educators. And we can support the teachers we serve by providing opportunities to reflect together about our reasons choosing to teach.
In this post you will find a selection of activities that can be used in professional learning settings, including faculty and team meetings, to help educators reconnect with their whys.
To do good things in the world, first you must know who you are and what gives meaning to your life.
~ Paula Brownlee
Activity: Why We Teach
Why We Teach is a book of essays written by teachers in which they describe why they choose to continue to teach in challenging circumstances (2005). Editor Sonia Nieto summarizes the themes she notes in the teachers’ explanations:
To Make Sense of the World
Through teaching, people name themselves and reveal what they stand for. This is true whether one teaches kindergarten or high school physics. Unlike other professions, teaching is fundamentally a social activity; it concerns itself above all with connection with others. Whether we view it as a craft or a science, as intellectual activity or creative endeavor, teaching is first and foremost about relationships. It is these relationships that are at the heart of teaching, and it is through them that teachers find out who they are. (p. 59)
To Help Students Name and Claim the World
Several decades ago, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire linked the ability to “read the word” with the necessity to “read the world.” That is, simply knowing how to decode and decipher words is not enough. In Freire’s judgment, teachers must teach students to read both the word and the world because helping students understand, navigate, and change the world takes a more critical approach to education than is generally the case. (p. 115)
To Become More Fully Human
Forget conventional notions of teachers as saviors or miracle workers: If it were not also deeply rewarding, if it were only hard work and sacrifice and selflessness – at times, even agonizingly difficult work – if they did not get something back from teaching, people would not teach. It is as simple as that. One way to look at this, is to understand that teaching helps make people more human. Much in the way that becoming a parent may help make one less self-centered, more responsive to others, more aware of one’s obligations beyond oneself, teaching too has this kind of effect. (p. 167)
Share these reasons and explanations with teachers.
Provide time for partners or teams to discuss how these ideas connect with their personal whys for choosing to teach.
End the activity by inviting each teacher to write a single sentence using the frame “I teach because…” on a large sheet of bulletin board paper to display in a common area.
Activity: Five Whys
Adapted from the National School Reform Faculty 5 Whys for Inquiry protocol, here is a simple exercise to use with your team, your faculty, or even just yourself to reconnect with our whys and deepen our understanding of our personal core values.
Respond to the question, “Why do I choose to teach?”
Reflect on the “why” beneath your initial response. You might consider the questions “Why is that important to you?” or “What values or beliefs lie beneath your choice?” or “What’s another reason?”
Repeat this self-analysis process three more times, taking your thinking to a deeper level or a different perspective with each new response.
This exercise can be completed as a journaling exercise or a discussion between partners. You might have teachers write a one-sentence response to the initial question about why they choose to teach and then to partner up, taking turns asking each other why questions to deepen understanding of their initial responses.
Q – Why do you choose to teach?
A – I want to help children learn and to see themselves as learners.
Q – Why?
A – I want to give my students opportunities to create fulfilling lives. I also want to position my students as agents in their futures.
Q – What’s another reason?
A – When people learn, they can put their understanding and skills to work helping others.
Q – Why is that important?
A – Learning can make the world a better place. Real learning is contagious and empowering.
Q – What personal values lie behind this idea?
A – I believe my purpose in life is to do some good every day. Teaching allows me to make a positive difference every time I step into the classroom.
Activity: Slow Down. Then Fast Forward.
Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around once in a while you could miss it.
~ From the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
It’s hard to see yourself when you’re moving at the speed of school.
~ Chase Orton, The Imperfect and Unfinished Math Teacher
When we feel overwhelmed or discouraged, it can help to mentally lift ourselves into the future where circumstances are different. Invite teachers to “press pause” on the busyness that is a part of school life to reflect on their teaching identities and professional goals. You might share the quotes above and use or adapt the questions below from Chase Orton’s book The Imperfect and Unfinished Math Teacher:
Where do you want your teaching story to go from here?
When you think about yourself in five years, what do you want to be able to say about your work?
What do you want your teaching legacy to be? (p. 72)
Give teachers five minutes to journal about these prompts and then ask them to connect with a partner for a stand-up conversation. You might have table groups create posters showing a visual representation of the teaching legacies they hope to leave.
Activity: Short and Sweet
“Life is short…. The average American has a lifespan of less than 30,000 days. So how you choose to live matters.” These are the opening words in Peter Atkins’ mini book Life is Short and so is this Book. In just 51 pages, Atkins describes 10 personal principles that he relies on to guide his daily actions.
Create Space – Say no to things that don’t matter, work hard at what you love, and occasionally take time away from your core focus to rest so that your mind can be quiet for great insights to come.
Try Not to Worry – Worrying wastes energy and time. Instead, focus on something going well, something beautiful, or something interesting.
Don’t do Really Dumb Things – Rely on your gut instincts to avoid taking actions that lead to bad outcomes. Feelings can flag problems that are difficult to articulate.
Build Character and Make Friends – If you live your life authentically, keep our word, admit mistakes and admit what you don’t know, you’ll find people will trust you more over time, and you’ll become wiser too.
Care for Yourself and Others – Our time on earth is limited, but you can extend your influence by helping those who will outlive you.
Laugh – Laughter positions us to face life’s challenges.
Do What You Love – Time is limited, and you can’t do everything so focus on your passions.
Embrace Change – Change will happen whether we like it or not. Change brings new opportunities and opportunities for growth.
Learn From Experience – Be curious, read widely, find mentors, observe and notice patterns.
Have Dreams and Work Toward Them – Take small steps in the right direction. Imagine success and keep your mind focused on that success.
Share this list with teachers and invite them to individually write one personal principal they try to live by in their work as a teacher. Ask teachers to share their ideas in table groups and then create a poster together titled “Three Important Principles for Thriving as a Teacher”. Share the posters, laugh, and celebrate the creativity and wisdom that exists within your teacher community.
People don’t burn out because of what they do. They burn out because life makes them forget why they do it. ~ Inky Johnson.
Activity: Measure What Matters
In his book The Imperfect and Unfinished Math Teacher, Chase Orton tells us:
Much of our current PD focuses on improving assessment data. But our teaching souls are nourished more by the human data students give us – data that tells us that they are enjoying math class. I mean, that’s what we really value, right? Seeing our students happy and engaged in learning mathematics with each other and authoring productive math stories? If so, then we need to learn how to enhance our professional identities by helping each other measure the things we truly value most as educators. (p. 18)
Orton goes on to say that when our professional actions are congruent with our personal values, we feel fulfilled and motivated. Our professional identities are strengthened. According to Orton, when we see our role as one of helping students to grow their identities as learners, “equity becomes embedded into our professional practice rather than something that is thought about as being separate and added on after the fact” (p. 170).
Together with teachers, brainstorm observable indicators of teaching success that go beyond test scores: smiles, laughter, the ability to explain or visually represent a complex idea, the choice to participate in an academic discussion or to help a fellow student, connections made between classroom learning and real-life situations…
Pick one of the ideas generated and collaboratively design a data collection tool and process.
Challenge teachers to collect the targeted data for a week and bring it to their next meeting.
Share and discuss results.
Each day, tally the number of times you notice laughter in your classroom.
What did you notice about factors that sparked laughter?
How did this laughter impact students’ engagement in learning and the emotional tone of the classroom?
Activity: A Letter to Me
Show this four-minute video: If I Knew Then.
Provide time for teachers to write a short letter to their first-year-teacher selves.
Ask teachers to partner up and read their letters to each other.
Close the activity by asking the group to summarize advice for first-year teachers and things that all teachers need to remember.
More Feel-Good Videos
You might take a quick minute at the start of a meeting or after coming back from break in a professional learning session to share an inspiring video. Here is a month’s worth of videos to consider:
Good Job! (4 minutes)
TEACH (1 minute)
Michelle Obama’s Best Advice (4 minutes)
The Pain & Joy of Teaching (4 minutes)
Be a Mr. Jensen (3 minutes)
Atkins, P. (2011). Life is short and so is this book: Brief thoughts on making the most of your life.
Nieto, S. (2005). Why we teach. New York: Teachers College Press.
Orton, C. (2022). The imperfect and unfinished math teacher: A journey to reclaim our professional growth. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Mathematics.
Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York: Penguin.
Sue Chapman is a professional learning consultant and author of MathVentures: 33 Teacher-Coach Investigations to Grow Students as Mathematicians. Connect with Sue at SueChapmanLearn@gmail.com and on Twitter at @SueChapmanLearn.