Why I do what I do!

This past week, I had the chance to re-listen to Simon Sinek’s presentation “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” on Ted.com. Often, you don’t hear the message the first time it is spoken. It may be that you were not ready to hear the message or simply did not appreciate the depth of the message. Regardless of the reason, Sinek’s words spoke to me this week. I keep going back to his statement, “People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.” I believe that this is a statement to be reflected upon by all those in education and especially by educational leaders.

For too long, educators have talked more about what they do then anything else. We speak of all the different roles we perform in our classrooms, our schools and our systems. Granted, much of our talk is a defensive response to counteract the negative tones that surround education today. But the bottom line, is we talk mostly about what we do! We are so busy defending, that we’ve forgotten to clearly and passionately articulate why we entered the profession and do what we do!

So let me tell you why I do what I do! In a nutshell, I want to make a difference in a child’s life, no matter what! In 1985 as a beginning classroom teacher, it was the students in my classroom. Then, it was all the students in the school as a principal. As Superintendent of Schools, it is all of the students in our system. And finally, as a connected educator, it is students anywhere.  In preparing for my annual evaluation, I am gathering my evidence (actions) that I believe support my successes in the defined role of superintendent. Regardless of the evidence that I provide, if my “why”is not to make a difference in every child’s life in our division, then my “what” is irrelevant. My core values, my personal vision and my own integrity must never be compromised in my actions.

Over the past 27 years and especially the last 11 years in senior administration, I’ve objected to government decisions that have lacked common sense. I’ve battled with trustees who were not prepared to make tough decisions that put students first. I’ve struggled with administrators, teachers and other support who believed that schools were an employment agency instead of place for the education of children. I’ve had some issues with parents who have chosen to take no responsibility in the raising of their own children. The silver lining though, is that these conflicts are generally exceptions not rules and are confined to the minority not the majority.

However, each of these battles have left a scar and I’m certain that a few more scars will be in my future. You cannot be an effective educational leader without some level of discomfort. To be honest, it is always easier to stay silent or make decisions that do not cause waves. Standing up for what is right and what you believe in especially when it does not conform to the societal norm is never easy. And that is the reason our “why” is so important. People need to witness your integrity, your passion and your core values before they understand or commit to your decisions. “People don’t buy what you do; people buy why you do it.”

Most educators I suspect, have the same passion for making a difference in a child’s life as I do. But, if we continue to talk about “what” we do instead of “why” we do it, especially if the “what” is formed as a complaint and appears self-serving, our work will never be fully appreciated. More importantly, if our “why” is not fully understood, society will continue to challenge the important role of public education. Without public education being a priority, our society will continue to suffer! We hold children’s future in the palm of our hands! Remember, that is a great honor but an even greater responsibility. Make sure parents, colleagues, and the community know why you do what you do and then let your actions speak for themselves!


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  1. Thanks Chris. Excellent post and a great reminder to always connect back to our “why”. Ultimately this drives (or ought to drive) the “what”. Wayne Hulley refers to this as the see-do-get cycle. How we see the world (and we all see it differently) determines what we do and what we do determines what we get. Keeping the “why” as the driver allows us to remember that schools exist as learning centres for children, not employment centres for adults. In keeping true to the former part of that statement, the latter part takes care of itself.

    1. Thanks Tom! I remember the work of Wayne and Linda well. We must always be conscience to start with the “why” and as you said, everything else will take care of itself.

    • Sheri Thomas on September 28, 2012 at 9:31 PM
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    Thinking about the ‘why’ is as important as talking about it. I’ve learned that thinking about the ‘why’ is what gives us strength during those challenging times of change in our schools and district.
    Thank you for sharing! It is evident that you are indeed a person who is driven by your passion for what is best rather than what is easiest and your outlook clearly goes hand in hand.

    1. Thanks Sheri! I believe the “why” is an important aspect for all of us in education. Teaching and learning is more complex today than ever before and without strong internal drive of our vocation we have a tendency to become cynical and desire no growth. The students of today deserve our very best and that only comes with a clear understanding of why we do what we do!

  2. A friend in Alberta shared a link to this post via Twitter.

    “Why?” What a question to ask yet it was the “whys” that drive me on despite now being a retired Australian teacher. Teaching had been a dream since I was 7. Sure, I went through other ideas like being a steam train driver but teaching was always there. By high school, I was collecting materials to use as a teacher. While I wanted to teach in primary (elementary) schools, I wanted a science degree to allow other options (although never used). This completed, I entered my career in the 70s.
    Over the years, I have little idea how many young lives I’ve influenced but still get positive feedback on the difference I made to many. Early retirement was needed in 2006 but the passion to be a part of young lives was still there. I joined the local school’s Parents and Citizens group, became a DVD producer for school and community productions, and volunteered help for school vacation and after school care but more recently have again become part of the education of children through blogging. Now I am part of many classes around the world. Why? …because I know I can make a positive difference in the lives of children.
    As writing challenge, I was once asked to write my autobiography in six words. It has been the basis of my approach to teaching: SEEKING WAYS TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE.
    My learning journey continues and in the process hopefully is of help to others.

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