Starting the School Year by Unpacking Your Why

  • Starting the School Year by Unpacking Your Why

    Starting the School Year by Unpacking Your Why

    August 2019

    For many of you, the school year is about to start or has already started. This means that there is a lot of work that needs to get done before embarking on a successful beginning of the academic year. For some, it may mean creating a list of what tasks need to get done before the opening of school. This list may include making sure that you have necessary resources, arranging the classroom to optimize learning, and figuring out what you are teaching and how you might teach it.

    Before you delve completely into your to-do list, I want to propose that you don’t start with what you need to do, but instead start with the why. Why do you teach? Until you are clear on your why, it may be difficult to think intentionally about your what. I recently had a conversation at NCTM’s Leadership Conference in Denver with a seventh-grade mathematics teacher who discussed why he teaches math. His thoughts were so provocative that I tried my best to write what he said:

    I teach math because it’s beautiful. I want my students to appreciate the beauty of math, like art and music. I teach math because I am a critical consumer of knowledge. I want my students to use math as a tool to be critical consumers. I teach math because it’s fun. I enjoy seeing my students play with math.

    Reflecting on this teacher’s why made me wonder what his classroom looked like and how his students navigated in this space. I wondered how he structured his lessons, what kinds of tasks engaged his students, how they participated in discourse, and what the norms of his classroom are so that students can see math as beautiful and fun, and become critical consumers. Knowing this teacher’s why prompted me to ask myself a series of what and how questions.

    At the Leadership Conference in July, attendees examined their why. I asked attendees why do you do the work that you do. To get them to think about their why, they watched a video in which comedian Michael Jr. describes the power of knowing your why. I was struck at the beginning of the video when Michael Jr. stated, “When you know your why, your what becomes more clear and more impactful.” To illustrate this point, he showed the audience a clip from a different event in which he asked a gentleman, who is a musical director at a school, to sing a few lines from “Amazing Grace.” The gentleman sang the refrain flawlessly. After praising the gentleman, the comedian asked the teacher to do it again, but this time painted a scenario to evoke emotion and feeling. In the second performance, the gentlemen sang with more emotion, his words were more animated, and his tone was deeper and richer. Michael Jr. concluded that “When you know your why then your what has more impact because you’re working toward your purpose.”

    After moments of reflection and sharing among the attendees, I shared my why by showing a picture of a group of students with the caption, “I do this so that they can dream.” Expanding on this statement—I do this work to advocate for teachers and children. For me, my roles of leader, researcher, learner, and teacher are intertwined and complementary. I cannot discount the fact that my race, gender, social class, and political views affect the work in which I engage. Rather than minimize this influence, I use my multiple identities as an interactional quality to bring a lens of social justice and equity to the work in which I engage.

    Before you unpack your why, I want to invite you to read some resources that may help you to think deeply about your why. These resources can bring clarity to your why and also provoke you to consider your what and how.

    • Why Teach Mathematics? In this President’s Message written by NCTM Past President Matt Larson, readers can make connections to statements found in Catalyzing Change in High School Mathematics: Initiating Critical Conversations.
    • Why Teach Mathematics? In this blog by Mathew Felton, readers reflect on two perspectives for teaching mathematics: the classical perspective and the equitable-curriculum perspective.
    • Why Teach Math? In this blog by David Wees, readers reflect on good reasons to teach mathematics.

    I wish everyone a promising start to the beginning of the new school year. Again, I want to propose that you don’t start with what you need to do, but with why you are doing the work you are doing. Please share your why on or on Twitter.

    Robert Q. Berry III
    NCTM President

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    Amy Ortega - 2/12/2020 4:32:29 AM

    Starting the school year by unpacking. Perfect thing where you start school year here is just a hope for you which telling you to come and start to unpacking for those things which are new for I am waiting you to must come and check all of it.

    Robin White - 8/14/2019 4:17:35 PM

    "...I use my multiple identities as an interactional quality to bring a lens of social justice and equity to the work in which I engage." What an important quality to bring -- thank you!