Two Septembers ago, I walked into a classroom of 25 freshmen. An hour and a half later, I walked out with an unrelenting desire to cry. Perhaps a quick conversation that occurred between me and one particularly candid freshmen girl one month later best captures my utter, and apparently transparent, fear on the first day.
“Miss, were you nervous on the first day of school?”
“I could tell. You were stuttering a lot and you turned all red.”
Ah, if asked to count my blessings at that moment I would say thank you, sweet girl, for not mentioning the hives that blossomed across my chest or the way my legs wouldn’t stop shaking, leaving me precariously balanced on a wedge that seemed, suddenly, much too narrow.
But fast forward two years, and I am still alive. And I am still a teacher.
And I have watched two classes of my senior students walk across the stage and receive their diplomas, all of them bound for college, letters of acceptance to four year universities strewn across their kitchen tables or hung by magnet on their refrigerator doors. And I have taught novels, facilitated discussions, scribbled across whiteboards. And I have been heartbroken and I have been inspired. And I have cried – like, really cried – and I have laughed, laughed loudly and uncontrollably.
And as I prepare to sign my contract for the upcoming a year, my third year as a high school English teacher, I am really in awe. I have always wanted to be a teacher, ever since I was in second grade and my parents bought me a chalkboard for Christmas. What strikes me the most, though, even more than the fulfillment of this childhood dream, is the discovery and uncovering of this thing that keeps me going day after day. It is not the dream itself that has kept me inspired, committed, fulfilled in this career. It is the discovery of my “why,” of my belief, of the things that drive me, of the things that – to quote Pedro Arrupe – “get me out of bed in the morning.”
Simon Sinek, in his TED Talk “How Great Leaders Inspire Action” describes the phenomenon of what he has coined “the golden circle.” He explains that all great leaders, from the Wright Brothers to Martin Luther King, Jr., have been successful because they operate from the outside in. They are driven not by the “what” or the “how” of their business, but rather by their conviction, by their vision, by their belief in something greater than revenue, power, or fame. They knew exactly why they did what they did. This knowledge, and the subsequent communication of this why, allowed them to not only be inspired and stay inspired, but to actually breed inspiration.
I started two years ago knowing the thing that I was doing and having a general sense of how I should do it. But my why was still a little fuzzy. Two years of teaching and a Masters later, and I find myself clarifying, finding, really defining my why. I am driven now, not by lesson plans, assessments, and data collection, but by a deep passion for education, a passion fueled by witnessing the achievement gap, by meeting both phenomenal and challenging students, by getting my hands dirty trying to be the best teacher that I can because there is far more at stake than I ever knew before.
The past two years have done more for me than simply ease my nerves as a new quarter approaches. It has brought me closer to doing perhaps one of the single most important things of our lives: discerning our “why.”