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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Question Why

Can you imagine anyone dreaming of becoming a teacher at a time when public schools are eliminating teaching positions in the wake of severe budget reductions? At a time when educators everywhere are operating under scrutiny due to perceptions of not meeting ever more demanding performance levels?

Can you imagine the emotional and psychological devastation that you would feel if your father was murdered in a senseless tragedy?

How about this to further complicate the scenario. Can you imagine leaving medical school to enroll in a college program to become a teacher? That's right, leave a path to a profession that promises much more financial compensation and security to enter a profession of fiscal uncertainty and insecurity.

Puzzled as to why a person would pursue the situation explained in the preceding paragraphs?

Click on the link below and read/listen to the story on the National Public Radio website about a Nigerian who left medical school to become a teacher after his father was murdered in Chicago by hopeless and helpless teens.

Answering the question, Why? is often much more difficult for people than responding to questions that begin with, What, Who, When, and Where. The Why question usually requires one to reach deep down inside for an answer that is often more personal and reflective of values and beliefs than replies to questions that begin with different prompts.

For instance, in the book, Made to Stick, by Dan and Chip Heath, the authors refer to an Algebra teacher who responds to the inevitable question generated by a learner who is skeptical of the relevance of a particular subject - "Why do we need to study Algebra?"

Here's the response:

"Most teachers usually reply that Algebra provides procedures for manipulating symbols to allow for the understanding of the world around us, or more simply, you need it to get your diploma,… Dean Sherman, a high school Algebra teacher responds – “You will never use Algebra. Think of weight lifting. People don’t lift weights to be prepared should, one day someone knock them over on the street and lay a barbell across their chests. You lift weights so you can knock over a defensive lineman, or carry your groceries, or lift your grandchildren without being sore the next day. You do math exercises so you can be a better lawyer, doctor, architect, prison warden, or parent. Math is mental weight training."

Framing an objective in a meaningful manner, and introducing the objective with value and relevance to the lives of those we teach is a vital strategic leverage point. Dean Sherman, the teacher in the example above, understands that. If the learners (of all ages and stages in life) don't perceive a connection between what they're expected to learn and their daily lives and projected futures, then they are less likely to invest the time, energy, and effort necessary to meet with success in attaining the objective.

I suspect the same also holds true for each of us when we select a field of work for our careers. I didn't choose to become an educator to make money. I had a stronger interest in making a difference rather than making dollars. I followed a path created by desire not default, by opportunity not convenience.Teachers who consistently meet with success and leave their learners with lasting memories more often than not enter the profession with the goal of making a positive and constructive difference in the lives of others. The young man in the NPR story certainly qualifies in that respect. Instead of devolving in an emotionally downward spiral following the senseless murder of his father, he sought to act in a manner that would help reduce the conditions and context of those who might otherwise pursue a life of crime borne of desperation, helplessness and hopelessness. I can't imagine a better example of a noble enlistment in a morally uplifting cause. Our society needs more people to answer the call for the right reasons and meet the needs of others through teaching in the right way.

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