The Power of Having Purpose in Your Work as a Teacher6 min read
I finished my undergraduate degree as an English major with a 2.5 GPA. A year later, I returned to college for another 2 years to get my teaching certificate, and graduated with a 4.0. In both education experiences I had to sit through 3 hour lectures, write 30-page papers, and take rigorous exams. During my undergrad, I worked 20 hours a week as a lifeguard at a beach next to my university, driving jet skis and staring at a lake with my friends, and during grad school, I worked 40 to 50 hours a week at a liquidation company that did not let me sit outside with my shirt off.
Here’s the question: in the year between undergrad and grad school, did I become smarter? Was my capacity for intelligence greatly increased between the ages of 22 and 23? Did a chemical transformation occur in my brain that helped me absorb information more? Do 23 year-olds traditionally have significantly better work ethic than 22 year-olds? Why did I get a 4.0 when the rest of my entire education career was defined by doing just enough to get by and earning B’s and C’s?
The answer, of course, is purpose.
The beginning of finding purpose.
In my last semester of undergrad, I was hired to tutor a freshman in high school for her writing class. At this time, I was an English major because I was always pretty decent at reading and writing, and this degree would allow me to graduate with the least amount of resistance as possible while still getting a degree to keep my mom happy. It also made this student’s mother think I was qualified to tutor her daughter in English, and I was happy to make a few extra bucks.
So I started meeting with this student every week, and at first her writing was atrocious. She had little confidence in her writing and even herself. However, each week I saw her skills improve along with her confidence. By the end of that semester, this girl started getting A’s on her papers and was realizing that she has the potential to succeed. I’ll never forget how her mother’s eyes teared up on my last tutoring meeting as she thanked me for helping her daughter.
Right then and there, I knew what I was meant to do with my life. I had to become a teacher.
Purpose inspires better work.
This was the genesis of my teaching career. Until then, I never realized how helping someone improve in their skills could have such an impact on the rest of their life. I needed more of this; I wanted my life to be built around creating this impact in the world. So long-story-short- I enrolled in a graduate program for teaching, spent 40 hours a week working to pay for it, worked harder in school than I ever have in my life, and earned a 4.0. However, the GPA was just a byproduct of this passion. Because I had a defined goal, a passion that would keep me up at night if I did not go after it, putting in the time and effort only made sense.
This isn’t to say I always enjoyed the work or was even passionate about all of it, but it was now worth it to me if it meant achieving my purpose. Writing those papers and sitting through those lectures now meant getting closer to becoming a teacher. Being rooted in a purpose deeper than getting grades or keeping my parents off my back is something I did not have for the majority of my education (hence the 2.5 in college). Purpose is what makes overcoming difficult obstacles possible. Having purpose is what makes grading 100 papers, working with difficult parents, or dealing with cell phones in the classroom bearable.
Purpose allows us to overcome obstacles.
I also think the lack of purpose is the primary reason for teacher attrition. This work is too difficult, too demanding to continue merely for a salary. Even if the average teacher salary was higher (which it should be), there has to be something greater driving the work. Purpose is the fuel for resilience. Researcher Angela Duckworth studied West Point graduates who successfully completed ‘The Beast Barracks,’ a grueling seven week training program civilian students are required to complete in order to become cadets. During “The Beast,” the students are pushed to the point of physical and mental exhaustion, causing many to drop out and not continue. Duckworth surveyed the ones who were successful, and found a common thread among all of the them: purpose.
The students who made it through the seven weeks of “hell” all have something driving them bigger than their own success. They have what Duckworth calls a “purposeful, top-level goal,” and this is what makes the difficulties worth it. The ones without a higher purpose, without a calling beyond meeting expectations and personal satisfaction, drop out. This is why I struggled my way through school and received a 2.5 in college.
Finding purpose as a teacher.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be motivated by personal growth, meeting expectations, or getting higher salaries. Instead, it’s about orienting ourselves to see those as byproducts of doing purposeful work. Whether a classroom teacher or a manager at Chick Fil A, we have to discover what the purpose of our work is in order to find true success. It’s a strong ‘why’ that allows us withstand any ‘how.’
So as a teacher, what motivates you on cold, dark days in January? What gets you up in the morning during testing season in the spring? What keeps you coming back despite how difficult your work truly is?
Is it because you know education is one of the most powerful tools to lift someone out of poverty, and you want to be a part of that lifting? Is because you know the 21st century requires people who can solve complex problems, so you help people practice that skill by teaching them math? Is it because you recognize the beauty written word can add to the world, and you want to help students see that as well? Is your purpose found in being that teacher you needed when you were younger but didn’t have?
Whatever it is, we have to identify it. We need to put that purpose into words, write it on a sticky note, repeat it as mantra every day. It’s having a defined purpose that allows us to withstand conflict but also strive to improve.
And the truth is, when we finally achieve parts of that purpose, when we attain goals and taste some of the success we envisioned, the toil becomes worth it. The time sacrificed, effort given, and energy expendended all becomes something well spent.
So, what is your purpose?
For more about finding joy as a teacher, check out this article.