A classroom of students and their teacher

Defining Your Purpose as a Teacher

by Zoe Weil

Defining your purpose coverAt the beginning of the teachers’ workshops I lead, I often facilitate an activity that invites participants to reflect upon their true mission as educators.

Their personal missions always differ from the US Department of Education’s, which is “to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.”

To many educators, our government’s mission is insufficient for today’s world.

With climate change threatening our children’s future; violence, cruelty, and prejudice still pervasive; and species becoming extinct at an ever-quickening rate, our children deserve a mission worthier of their good minds and big hearts and more relevant to the world they will both inherit and shape.

After sharing the Department of Education’s mission statement, I show a couple of videos.

The first, “Did You Know?,” is a film that’s updated annually with various statistics about today’s technological world. Watching it, teachers can’t help but ponder the purpose of education in such a rapidly changing, information-laden society.

The second, “How Will We Take Action?,” is a one-minute video, from the Institute for Humane Education, which offers a vision of the potential positive outcomes of schooling.

Following each video, teachers jot down notes with this guiding question as a prompt: “What should the purpose of education be?”

Next, I share the following quotations and book excerpts:

“The destruction of the planet is not the work of ignorant people. Rather it is largely the result of work by people with BAs, BScs, LLBs, MBAs and PhDs.” (Prof. David Orr from his book Earth in Mind)

“Dear Teacher:
I am the survivor of a concentration camp. My eyes saw what no person should witness:
– Gas chambers built by learned engineers.
– Children poisoned by educated physicians.
– Infants killed by trained nurses.
– Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.
So I am suspicious of education. My request is: Help your students become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they make our children more humane.” (Haim Ginott from his book Teacher and Child)

“Parents send us the best thing they’ve ever done – their kids – and we have to be worthy of them…. Our job is to co-create alongside our kids the citizenry we so desperately need…. This question is the fundamental right of every child to have answered: ‘Why do I need to know this?’” (Chris Lehmann, Principal, Science Leadership Academy)

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” (William Butler Yeats, poet)

“Children should be taught how to think, not what to think.” (Margaret Mead, anthropologist)

“Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving the world better than you found it.” (Marian Wright Edelman, child advocate)

After writing down any thoughts sparked by these quotations, I invite participants to hold a Quescussion, a discussion conducted only with questions.

In pairs, one person asks, “What should the purpose of education be?” Their partner responds with a question sparked by the prompt, to which the first person responds with a new question sparked by the second question.

After a few rounds, the questions almost always become more and more provocative, searching, and thought-provoking.

After the Quescussion, I ask participants to reflect upon what they’ve experienced during the 20-minute exercise and then to draft a one-sentence mission statement in response to the question, “What should the purpose of education be?”

Then they share their sentences on a big piece of paper, so that they can read and reflect upon all their missions.

When I recently led this activity in Detroit, here’s what the paper looked like:

What do you think the purpose of education should be?

If you are a teacher, are you currently teaching with that purpose in mind?

If not, how might you do so more intentionally within the constraints of your curriculum?

If you are, we’d love to hear about the ways you’re doing so, as well as what you and your students are experiencing.