What's your Why?
As originally posted February 8, 2019 on BigDealBook.com.
I've had the opportunity to speak at various colleges around my state this year. Although each campus has its own flavor, I am guaranteed to be asked one question at some point in my visit—usually from a student teacher. Although it comes in many forms, it goes something like this: “I'm student teaching. Whenever other teachers in my building find out I’m going to become a teacher they ask why. They say get out while you still can.”
Although I disagree with the statement, the question is necessary—why are you teaching? My why comes in two parts: it’s for myself and my students.
I didn’t grow up wanting to be a teacher. After I received my first video game system, Pong, I wanted to be a computer programmer. Later, I wanted to be an actor on Broadway. It is amazing to me the way the actors and audience engage in a story that tells deeper truths about ourselves and the world. At one point, I was a camp counselor. I loved how one moment the campers and I could be playing awesome, silly games and the next moment talking about the deep truths of life. In high school, my physics teacher, Mr. Reebok, introduced me to a subject that resonated with who I am. I’m perpetually asking, “How does this work?” and “Why does this do that?”
I went to college and launched right into physics. However, I got the itch every college student gets, asking myself “Do I really want to do this the rest of my life? I love physics. But do I love physics?” As I wrestled with this question, my education major friends asked if I had ever considered teaching. They thought my personality and talents were a good fit. I signed up for my first education class my sophomore year and was immediately hooked. Teaching was the culmination of all those parts of me. I get to work with computers. I get to be on stage every day creating a bigger story. I get to joke around during a lab one moment, and then have a deep conversation about life the next. Teaching is a part of who I am.
My second why is the students. They can be goofy, frustrating, incredible, impatient, understanding, and stress-inducing—all at the same time! However, students are all humans who want to be appreciated for who they are and what they have to bring. There is no greater reward than connecting with my students and making them feel valued.
Several years ago, I had Brittany in physics. We hit it off well, and she was a physics natural. One day, she walked into class and noticed I had a migraine. She explained that her migraines came when reading under the wrong kinds of lights. “If I read for more than an hour under fluorescent lights, I can feel the headache start in the back of my head,” she said. At home that evening, I researched this and found most people with this type of trigger could easily avoid a migraine by wearing colored glasses. I went out and bought her a pair of blue tinted sunglasses. The day before Christmas, I gave her the glasses and said, “I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate you. You are really good at physics. I hope you pursue it after high school. Here’s a small thank you.” After Christmas break, Brittany came flying into my room and said, “Mr. Flewelling, every time I read over break I used the blue glasses. I haven’t had a migraine since.”
Four years later, I received an email from Brittany. She reminded me about the blue glasses, “just in case I forgot.” (How could I forget?) She went on to say she was standing in front of her first classroom; she had become a physics teacher. That’s my second why: the joy I get in connecting with students and helping them discover their value. It’s intoxicating!
I usually smile when a teacher candidate asks me “why?” Forget all the brain science we’ve discovered on how students learn. Never mind that if I don’t know how to present a concept or don’t have time to invent a great lesson, a one-second search produces tons of options. Overlook all the connections educators are making around the country, and world, through technology. Disregard the fact that teachers are discovering their voice and standing up for themselves and their students. Maybe all those are valid and exciting too. But at the heart of it, knowing my why has helped me weather the many storms in education. Knowing my value and what I have to bring gives me the strength to help students know they are unique and valued.
What’s your why?