Finding My Purpose as an Educator

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The path that lead me to teaching was a twisted one. I didn’t set out after high school to get a degree in education, mold young minds, and change the world. Finding my purpose as an educator was a long process, one that didn’t fully emerge until after more than a decade in the classroom.

In high school, I took two classes that immediately defined what I thought I wanted to do with my life, Journalism and American Government. I was going into political public relations, and I would manage campaigns for politicians that wanted to change the world.

Now, these people do exist, but it’s a cynical world, and politics can be daunting for a 20-year-old working on losing campaigns. It wasn’t just the losses, it was the lack of purpose. I didn’t feel like I was making a difference, and more than writing, more than politics, that’s what I wanted. I wanted to help.

I graduated with my degree in journalism and political science, and I needed a job. It was just after 9/11, and the world was a different place than it was four years prior when I stepped foot on my college campus. I didn’t fit in the government world. I had no desire to run for office. I still loved to write, but the newsroom didn’t seem like the place for me. Broke and anxious, I started working in sales. Coupons door to door (yes, really) and cars (that was actually fun, really) were my products over the next couple of years. My body was strong from walking miles and my brain was full from the knowledge of Honda models, but my purpose wasn’t fulfilled.

When you’re 23 with a college degree and no purpose, you feel worthless. That was me. I couldn’t see spending the rest of my life in sales. I have the utmost respect for people in retail and other sales industries, but for me, I didn’t feel like it was my calling. I was depressed. Each day was a job that I didn’t feel passionate about followed by drinks at Happy Hour and Must-See TV. I doodled lists and sullen free verse poems in the margins of my journals, I spent money on credit cards filling the voids with shopping, drank too much coffee, and just went about a life didn’t have meaning.

How finding Genius Hour helped me find my purpose and lead others to find theirs

I was a born saleperson. I could read people. I knew what they wanted, but I didn’t know what I wanted. Until I looked deeper at my last few jobs and found a common thread. Teaching.

When I was training people in my door-to-door job or helping customers learn about the features of a vehicle, I felt like I had some sense of happiness. Somehow this training or teaching just fit me. It wasn’t the first time I caught the education bug. School was a rotating game (between playing church with my little brother, house with my sister, or store with neighbor kids). Teacher was my title, and I loved designing math and science lessons for my pupils. Perhaps, I dismissed the teaching calling too quickly in my youth. Maybe, I could do this.

One Thursday, on the way home from my car sales job, I heard a commercial for a Saturday teaching program. I called on Friday. On Saturday, I registered, started classes, and took out more student loans. That was it. I was going to be a high school Journalism teacher. My purpose was to help kids become better writers. I couldn’t wait.

It didn’t exactly turn out that way. I took a job teaching 8th grade English (and eventually Reading), and I always thought of myself as an English teacher. I taught reading, writing, and speaking. That was my purpose. I even found that teaching middle schoolers wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. In all seriousness, I loved the age group, and I saw myself making a difference by teaching them the content I was hired to teach.

After nine years of focusing on content, I realized that I was losing sense of my why, my purpose. Sure, I bonded with kids. We had fun. We did things outside the curriculum, I went to their concerts and games when I could. After nine years though, education had become about standards and testing. Students walked into my classroom down-trodden and hurt by the words of peers. School was becoming less safe for the outsiders. I felt like I couldn’t relate to kids anymore, and maybe, they couldn’t relate to each other. For many of them, their why was to come to school, go through the motions, and pass tests. My why seemed to be to get them to pass. I couldn’t do it anymore.

Then things started to happen. I found a tribe with the iPadacademy in Bellevue. It wasn’t about the tech at all; it was about seeing educators passionate about teaching. I also saw a video. The ideas from an 18 minute TedTalk would change my life and my career. It was year 10, and I found Genius Hour through a TedTalk by Daniel Pink.

The Puzzle of Motivation and Pink’s book Drive focuses on aspects of motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This is apparent in business, but why not in schools? Students want choice, they want to be challenged (but not overwhelmed to the point where the challenge is unattainable), and they need to know that what they do matters. They’re human. They’re like adults, but we treat school separate from what they need in the work world.

Pink and others gave birth to Genius Hour in Education, the concept of using 20% (or so) of a work week (or in education, a school week) to devote to students’ own interests and passion projects. This concept changed my life. It changed my teaching. I felt like I could help students improve in reading and writing by pursuing their own passions. I was right, but not 100% right.


How finding Genius Hour helped me find my purpose and lead others to find theirs

Yes, I see growth in those academic skills, but Genius Hour did something else. It gave me purpose again. My purpose was never to make a difference by teaching them how to be better readers and writers. Yes, that’s part of my job, and I take it very seriously. However, my true purpose is to help my students (and, I believe, other adults) find their purpose. It took needing to find my own to realize this, but Genius Hour made me believe that every student needs a connection, a voice, and to be needed and feel like they matter. Genius Hour was mostly about building relationships with and amongst my class. It was about building community. My purpose is to help everyone who comes into my classroom to find even a little bit of why they are valued in this world, and by being able to use class time to pursue what matters to them, what they believe can make a difference in the world, I believe I have done that even if just for a moment.

Future blogs will feature some of these student projects, other educators, and why I believe that every school, every business, and even every person needs their own Genius Hour time. Genius Hour is my passion project. It helped me find my purpose, and I want to help others due the same.

Teaching isn’t easy. My calling, my purpose keeps me moving, busy, exhausted, and sometimes anxious, but it’s what I live to do. It leads every part of my life. When I look into my daughter’s eyes, I want her to know that every question she asks, fueled with unbridled curiosity is waiting to be answered with more than just a quick internet search or glance at a textbook. When I watch my inquisitive, remarkably intelligent son build robots and study calculus, I know he will reach his goals and keep pursuing his dreams even if they change along the way. I want my family, my students, and my colleagues to know that they belong. What they have to contribute is so important to that world. It took me a long time to figure that out for myself, and now, I know that I really, truly matter.