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Not 'How', But 'Why'

As educators, we are well-versed in the idea that our fundamental goal is to educate students by preparing them to retain and process subject-specific content. Nevertheless, as an institution, education has become so fixated on the things are within our realm of control--Common Core Standards and standardization--, that we are reluctant to acknowledge just what it takes to fully support and advocate for the development of the whole student. That is most important. It is arguably more important than academics alone.

Sometimes, we miss the “why.”

Why? From the fabulous age of 3, children ponder some of the most unassuming and, yet, complex aspects of life. “Why does popcorn pop?” “Why is the sky blue?” “Why do you love me?”

“Why do people fight?” These questions become increasingly frustrating, and, let’s be honest, cumbersome, to address. But, think about what happens in the “why.”

Such a short word has such significant meaning for the socio-academic development of our youth. We can consider daily tasks such as why we utilize specific classroom rules and procedures or why we measure content mastery with certain assignments. On a macro-level, we also spend time reflecting upon what makes an effective educator or why our own personal educational beliefs and philosophies drive our work in the way that it does. Think about just how powerful it is for us to acknowledge the core of our decision making and the impact that will have on our practice.

Our avoidance of challenging academic traditions, in search of a more in-depth and genuine understanding of the “why” in meeting our students’ needs, is rooted in our own need to simplify what can sometimes be chaotic and unpredictable--teaching and leading in schools. The reality is that the obstacle for the adults involved in students’ learning is that we resort to more factory styles of teaching and classroom management, which demands silent work spaces, rote memorization, and traditional routines and classroom systems. It does make us feel better and more organized, more in control of our time and energy. We can check off the list of things “to-do” as we progress throughout the day. But, in that we miss critical opportunities to engage students in meaningful situations and lessons that will prove to be invaluable for them as they grow and function in life, not just in our classrooms and schools. Considering the “why” in our decision-making, regarding instruction and interpersonal practices, transitions good teachers to great teachers and from effective to transformational.

Changing how we educate, changes lives. Transformational teaching is a style of teaching that is as concerned with students attitudes and agency about their learning as their academic mastery. Our dynamic social world demands that we reconsider antiquated, more traditional practice, that relies solely on the adult figures for guidance and knowledge creation so that we can become more innovative and more appropriately align with emerging student interests, lived experiences, and emergent social world. In the approximately 180 days we serve our students and their families, there is ample chance for us to purposefully create spaces and opportunities where students are engaging in their own learning journey by helping to establish vision, offering critical feedback on current school practices, or at the very least, choice in their assignments. In some cases, we need to reflect on how we can adjust our approach to better ensure that we are considering how we are guiding the whole student toward accomplishing both academic and personal growth.

It starts with knowing our students as people. One of the most touching sentiments a student has ever shared with me was, “you get me” and “you take your time with what I need and I’m not used to that.” We can support students in the creation of meaning through their own lenses and their experiences by actively including them in their education. By guiding school discourse in this way, students begin to define “why” for themselves. It is in this space where our learners become self- sufficient and self-advocates.

Think specifically about the needs of historically excluded students, those that have traditionally existed in the margins of the American public (and definitely private) school systems. For students where so much of who they are is identified for them by unfair stereotypes deeply rooted in racism, sexism, classism and the like, we don’t know who they truly are if we do not ask them and if we don’t embed their own thoughts and ideas within the learning space. We continue to do those students, who society would much less forget, a disservice if we don’t render them more valid, more valuable, and more visible.

If rationalizing the time and focus to cultivate classroom and school communities socio-academically seems overwhelming, what is the alternative? What goals do you have for your students? And, can you accomplish and sustain academic outcomes in isolation of the social factors impacting students lives? In focusing on the academic and social development of students, we better prepare them to become active critical thinkers.

Pondering the “why” also creates an opportunity for practitioners to collaborate and proactively discuss the factors that affect our ability to teach and operate in our roles.

The irony in receiving this gentle reminder about considering “why” the socio-academic development of students is paramount is that we have all attended a professional development session and been asked to reflect on “why did you become an educator,” or posed with the question of, “why did you prioritize certain standards and/or objectives over others?.” We focus, almost solely, on the academics involved in successfully preparing students to perform. Rarely, do schools challenge all school staff to consider the practices as they relate to social equity and justice in addition to diversity, inclusion, and communities of difference.

It isn’t fair to address the “why” and negate the reality of the “how.” This is not a simple task to launch, but neither is the profession of teaching. Nothing about training young minds to one day take over the world comes without expertise, passion, and a will to change lives. Teachers hold a critical and endearing place in the lives of everyone; nearly no other job can say that.

So, how do we do the “why?”

We accomplish this by revisiting what matters to us as people, not necessarily just as professionals. We are reminded that our students have a story. It is in that story that we connect to what drives them to succeed.

I challenge you, how are you unpacking the “why” in your practice?

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