What’s Your Why

Having the unique privilege to speak to the entire staff of Worthington Schools at our district convocation is one of my favorite parts of my job.  This year my talk focused on our district mission.  Here’s what I said:

“I’ve titled today’s talk ‘What’s your why?’ I’m going to share with you two different stories and then I’m going to attempt to help pull those two stories together so stay with me for a few minutes…

IMG_9097It was the 1985-1986 school year and I was a seventh grade student at Perry Middle School.  For those of you new to Worthington we used to have a middle school called Perry where we now have Phoenix, Worthington Academy and Rockbridge.  Back in 1985 we had two middle schools, the Perry Patriots and the Worthingway Wildcats.  Board of Edcuation Jennifer Best and I were Patriots, Board of Education member Julie Keegan was an aptly named Wildcat.  Back in 1985 the gym teacher at Perry was a man named Noel Noblette.  Noel passed away unexpectedly last fall.  Noel had grown-up with my dad in the Linden area.  I’d known Noel most of my life as we also attended church with Noel and Cathy.  At Perry Noel was the gym teacher and the boy’s basketball coach.  He was a Boston Celtic fanatic and loved the Larry Bird teams from the mid ‘80’s.  I, on the other hand, was more of a showtime Lakers fan and in my mind that was really the only plausible reason my dad’s lifelong friend cut me from the seventh grade basketball team.  Certainly my inability to dribble, pass or shoot effectively had little to do with the fact that Chris Piela, Kyle Lucas and Darren Grundy made the team and I didn’t.  

NoelSo I was a seventh grade boy and while I had known Mr. Noblette most of my life I certainly was not going to admit to knowing him at school.  Anyway, he was too busy wearing the old grey Riddell coaching shorts with the thick elastic waistband and showing the proper form for a two hand push pass than actually talking with me in class and thus I was safe.  

In April of 1986, I was walking down the center hallway at Perry and was about 15 steps east of the library.  I was the only student in the hallway and Mr. Noblette was walking the other way towards me.  I diverted my eyes and attempted to make it look like I hadn’t seen him.  That of course didn’t work and Mr. Noblette stopped me.  I’ll never forget the interaction that came next.  Out of the blue, he looked me in the eye and he said, “Trent, if you need anything, you come see me.  I’m here to help anytime.”  That was it. I was uncomfortable, but in fairness I was uncomfortable if any adult talked to me one–on-one.  And I went about my day.  After school that same day the bus dropped us off at our street and when I walked toward our house my mom was standing in the driveway.  That was strange, she didn’t meet me in the driveway on a normal day or any day that I could remember.  This day turned out not to be any day.  She met me in the driveway and told me that my dad was in the hospital, he had a massive heart attack and they would be doing surgery soon.  (Turns out that dad was swimming at the old Westerville Athletic Club and had a heart attack in the pool.  The lifeguard jumped in and saved his life by first getting him out of the water and then administering CPR until the ambulance arrived.  He was scheduled for triple bypass surgery but they ended up doing only double because they discovered he only had two arteries instead of the normal three.  BTW… Dad’s here today so no worries.)  

A few days later it hit.  Mr. Noblette knew about my dad’s heart attack before I did.  He knew I’d be finding out the news that night and he didn’t know at that point everything would turn out ok.  Mr. Noblette wanted me to know he was there for me, and you know what, he was.  He may have had to do the hard thing and cut his friend’s son from the basketball team but his purpose as a teacher wasn’t to teach the perfect push pass, it wasn’t to win the 8th grade basketball tournament, his purpose everyday was to connect with kids and help them learn and grow.  Some he connected with more than others certainly but that was his passion…helping his students succeed.

PotomacFast forward eleven year and In 1996 I was a fifth grade teacher at Potomac Elementary School in Dahlgren, Virginia.  I was fresh out of college and this was my first teaching job.  Potomac was a school that had many additions over the years and my classroom was in the oldest part of the building.  It was the old kitchen and had windows on three sides.  The downside was to get to my classroom you had to walk entirely through Mr. Young’s fifth grade classroom which was in the old cafeteria.  It was definitely a unique situation.  

I began that year with a mix of confidence and trepidation.  I really had no idea how to teach, but I figured that’s why we had a teacher’s edition. I was certain it had the answers I needed.  I felt like the one skill I needed was discipline.  I had read Harry Wong several times and my principal Mark Allan believed strongly in the old Lee Cantor approach of assertive discipline.  So I had a token economy and I walked around with Monopoly money all day long and rewarded my students every time I saw them doing something positive.  This worked well for almost two whole days.  It was day three when I realized I was in trouble….

On day three, a student named Alexis walked into class and sat under her desk.  She didn’t talk to me, or anyone else, she just decided that she wasn’t going to sit in her seat and she wasn’t going to do any work.  Instead, she was just going to sit under her desk.  Her morning work stayed on top of her desk as did her chair.  I didn’t think much of this at first, I just asked her to get into her seat.  She didn’t answer me, she just looked at me.  So, I said please.  I thought maybe that would help…it didn’t.  I let a few minutes pass and then I asked again.  No luck.  I let a half hour pass and I offered her a $20 dollar bill from the Monopoly money I was doling out.  She thought about it for a second and then she told me where I could stick my Monopoly money.  Uh-oh, this was not in my Harry Wong book.  So, I called the office.  I thought, I’ll show you Alexis, how about a trip to the principal’s office?  Mr. Allan came down to my classroom, all of the kids in the class turned and looked when he walked in and I thought, see, behave or I’m calling Mr. Allan.  But, it didn’t work like I thought it would.  Mr. Allan asked Alexis to come with him.  She didn’t budge.  Mr. Allan got down on the ground to talk with her.  She didn’t budge.  Eventually Mr. Allan gave up and left.  Seriously, he just left.  And, I was still in the classroom.  I can still picture him walking out of my classroom some 20 years later.  I was like, WHAT?  Where are you going?  What am I supposed to do now?  We had 178 school days left that year and on day three I realized I couldn’t even get one student out from under her desk.  

It wasn’t always Alexis.  Sometimes it was Jason, or Shon, or Carla, or Gregory.  But it was someone almost every day that school year and many days I thought what am I doing?  Why am I doing this job?  See, I became a teacher because I thought it would be a good stable job.  I could teach and coach, and the benefits should be good.  I liked kids for the most part and most of them seemed to like me.  In year one I didn’t realize it would be this hard.  But it was, until I realized why.  

I hadn’t yet developed my purpose.  I didn’t yet know my why?  Why am I going to get up in the morning?  Why am I going to choose to teach students?  Why am I going to deal with kids who won’t get out from under their desks or kids who might give me lice (back when I had hair) or parents who were going to yell at me. Why would I do a job where you can’t go out to lunch or even go to the restroom when needed?  Why?

It took me until my third year as a teacher before I totally understood what Noel Noblette understood.  The Why?  The why for me became clear that year: I want to really get to know my students and, through relationships make a positive difference in their lives.  Today that’s been broadened to include  making a positive difference in the lives of our students, the people I work with and our Worthington community.  This job is too difficult otherwise.  I work for five different people (known as the Board of Education) who often each tell me to do something different. People get mad at me for most every single thing I do.  People write mean things about me on social media and even sometimes say very mean things to my kids about me and about them.  If I’m going to do this job I have to have a strong sense of purpose.  Otherwise it’s not worth it.

The same goes for you.  What’s your purpose?  What’s your why? Why do you come to work here in Worthington?  Why do you drive a school bus or serve lunch here?  Why do you choose to teach or coach here?  I’ve got news for you, that you may have already figured out.  If you’re only here because you need a job, there are easier ways to make a living.  In public education and in Worthington Schools if you want to survive, you have to be madly passionate about helping kids succeed.  You have to care about them so much that you’re willing to put up with all measure of silliness from both the kids and the adults.  You have to feel so strongly about helping our students experience success that you might have to be willing to get bit, thrown-up on, cussed out, threatened, and sometimes hugged.  And, come back for more the next day and next and next after that.  To really enjoy your job  you have to know your purpose.  So, what’s your Why?

In Worthington Schools we spent last year working to determine our collective why.  That’s framed now as the mission of Worthington Schools:  To empower a community of learners who will change the world.  This is our collective why.  

To empower is to enable or permit, to give power or authority.  A community of learners represents our 10,000 students, our 1,250 staff members and each of the 60,000 residents of our school district.  Our students changing the world is a broad and audacious goal.  

Our students will change the world in big and small ways.  Some will start companies, do breakthrough research, or serve in politics.  Others will affect future generations as teachers, senior caretakers, our senior caretakers, or as parents. In order to prepare them for an uncertain future, our students need a base level of academic content knowledge and that academic content knowledge is not at yesterday’s level but at a much higher level than ever before.  In addition we know that academic content knowledge is not enough it’s a commodity.  What our students need most is to be adaptable, resilient, inquisitive, entrepreneurial, collaborative and lifelong learners.  If our students are going to be prepared for this future then what they do in your classroom matters.  But what they do in First Robotics or Science Olympiad or Destination Imagination, or in theatre, or on the athletic field may matter just as much.  What role does each of us play in helping our students obtain these necessary skills?  We all play a role.  Everybody here.

Few organizations and few people really know why they do what they do.  We often know how we do something and we surely know what we do.  But the why has to come first.  As noted leadership author Simon Sinek says, “We have to start with why.”  

This year we’re going to attempt to cement our why.  For our district we’ve determined our why is to empower a community of learners who will change the world.  I want you to wrestle with that some over the next few weeks and when you’re done it’s important that you’re clear on how you fit into that mission.  In addition, I want you to spend some time thinking about your personal “why?”  Why do you choose to make a living this way?  In a best case scenario your personal why aligns with our district why.  When that happens we will see our organization move and grow in exciting ways.

Noel Noblette was a gym teacher.  But really he was a teacher of kids.  He was a middle school teacher and thus he was devoted to shepherding kids through a very transitional period of their life.  He was someone who wanted to help students succeed and he used his gym class and the basketball court as his how.  For some of you the how may be marching band, or French class, or robotics team, or maybe it’s time on your bus or a connection with kids as they come see you in the office.  As a young teacher I started with the ‘what I was going to do’.  Because I started in the wrong place I floundered for a few difficult years, as likely did my students.  Once I clearly defined my purpose as an educator, the ‘how’ and the ‘what’ began to fall into place.  It was never easy but my mission was clear and that made everything else more doable.

To empower a community of learners who will change the world.  That’s our why in Worthington Schools.  Tomorrow we begin to make that happen!  Have a great school year.”

change the world

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