It’s not what you do that matters, it’s why you do it

What makes a great leader? What is the difference between two companies that make the same product, but one is successful and the other isn’t? What is the difference between a good teacher and a great teacher?

I recently played a Ted talk for my National Honor Society students as a way to stimulate some personal reflection and group discussion about leadership qualities.

[On a side note, if you’ve never checked out TedEd it is a great resource of short animated video clips explaining concepts across several disciplines. There are also multiple choice and discussion questions linked, which makes it easy to build in a starter, check for understanding, exit ticket, or class discussion as part of viewing the video.]

The Ted talk about leadership, by Simon Sinek, delved into the question about why some companies/leaders are successful where others aren’t. Examples included Apple, the Wright brothers, and Martin Luther King. His basic visual concept was a bullseye with “why” in the center, “how” midway, and “what” in the outer ring.



The science teacher in me loved how he brought in the parts of the brain; comparing the “what” to the neocortex which involves rational thought, “how” to the midbrain which involves emotions, and “why” to the primitive limbic system (our instincts). His point was that successful companies and leaders work from the center “why”, appealing to other’s gut feelings and emotions, which are then rationalized and supported by the neocortex to support the “what”. Others work from the “what” with facts and research, trying to convince people and often working against their emotions and gut feelings, which is not successful. I had the students think about their goals and causes in this context, as well as our projects through NHS, but I personally started thinking in terms of how this applied to education.

I began to think in terms of what makes a successful teacher. There are teachers that when compared, the “what” of their teaching is the same. They are both covering the same material, in the same order.The good teachers and the great teachers can even utilize the same “how”, with differing success. The “how” begins to make a difference. Different teaching strategies have an impact, but even teachers employing the research based strategies when they teach still doesn’t explain the difference between the good and great teachers. The great teachers operate from the “why”. They engage students not with the facts, or even their emotions (which are fickle and dependent on outside circumstances, not always within a teacher’s control), but by appealing to their gut. They engage them with why it matters to them personally. Why it makes a difference in their life. Why they should care. This is why project based learning and authentic learning experiences based on a “real-world” problem or situation are so successful. The how and what fall into place when working outward from the why.

The difference between teachers that come and go and those that last until retirement is also related to which of these they are operating from. When focusing on the “what” and “how” it is easy to quickly burn out. The reality of “what” in teaching is low salary, high stress, low appreciation, limited time, limited resources, student issues, the list goes on. The “how” of teaching can be fun, but often no matter how creative and well planned a lesson may be, there are still students who don’t care, don’t listen, don’t stay on task, don’t learn. Our energy drains when spending countless hours after school planning and preparing and then see the lesson fall flat, or half the class is out for an extracurricular function, or class is interrupted by a disruptive student, etc. We begin to feel that we are spinning our wheels, and no matter how hard we work the students are not “getting it”. The parents don’t appreciate (or even realize) how much work we are putting into their children. Even our administration  strolling in for  a walk-through sees only 5 minutes of a lesson and only one tiny piece of something we’ve  often been preparing for and scaffolding for weeks. Yes, operating from the “how” is exhausting.

The “why” of teaching is the key to motivation, both for the student and the teacher. This is not easy. Working from the “why” requires in-depth evaluation, both of the material we are teaching and our personal purpose for teaching. The “why” that keeps teachers teaching may be varied. I would venture to guess many have similar reasons; a relationship with the students, caring about their personal future, caring about our collective future (the importance of contributing to a democratic society which is based on a foundation of educated citizens), a love of their subject (Math, Science, dance, music, English…), a desire to inspire the next generation of poets, scientists, politicians, civic leaders, teachers, accountants, etc. There are many “why’s” but it’s important to identify your own. This is the guiding star that keeps you moving forward when you want to give up.

The key to keeping our motivation, energy, effectiveness and optimism is working from that gut feeling. That is the difference between a teacher  getting by, collecting a pay-check, and being miserable and a great teacher that is  happy, successful, and inspiring.



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