Finding Purpose in Teaching
(The following is a sample chapter from an upcoming book I'm working on called Take CHARGE. It looks at six steps to set up successful classroom management and six steps for deescalating behavioral outbursts. The first part of successful classroom management is confidence and the first part of confidence is purpose.)
So, you’re a teacher.
Ages ago some people viewed education as an easy career to fall back on. With three months off each summer, how hard could teaching really be?
I’m not sure if that fantasy ever truly existed. If it did, it doesn’t any longer.
Teaching is hard. It keeps you up at night, takes you away from your own family and your own household duties. It asks too much of you, and when you’ve given everything, it asks for more.
Oftentimes teaching is thankless. You’re yelled at by parents, demeaned by administrators, and made to feel inept by students. I’m not quite sure if there’s another profession in existence that makes so many of its members rethink their life choices on a weekly basis.
Yet you’re still committed to teaching.
Most of the time.
Before we dive deep into taking charge of your classroom, into getting a handle on classroom management and reducing off-task behavior, we have to talk about you.
The first part of taking charge of the classroom is confidence, both yours and your students’. It all starts with you, however, and the first step in growing your confidence is tapping into your purpose.
If, when I was a boy, you would have asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I didn’t have a firm answer until high school. I was too busy playing baseball, riding my bike around town, and generally having fun with my friends to worry about that. As the son of a minister, and an identical twin to boot, both my brother and I decided that we would follow our father into the ministry after college.
With that major decision made, our college plans lined up nicely. We went to a private Baptist college in California, both with full scholarships, and each graduated in three years with double majors (being a twin can be incredibly annoying when everything you do is identical). With a bachelor’s in religion and history, my brother’s life and mine broke into distinctly different directions after college.
You see, after my freshman year, I met the love of my life, Heather, as she was a summer missionary to California in 1997. We dated for a year, were engaged in 1998, and got married a few months after I graduated college in 1999. While I was starting my new adventure of marriage, my brother became a missionary to Botswana for two years.
Still operating under the guidance of my decision to become a minister, my wife and I lived on the college campus for a year after my graduation (and our marriage) while I worked in the campus ministries department. Though I already knew that ministry underpaid, I struggled again with that stark reality as a new husband. To supplement my eager income, I also started to serve as a substitute teacher for the local school district on Fridays.
I don’t remember much of my few stints as a substitute teacher, but my overarching reaction was one of relief that teaching was not in my future. It was absolutely crazy! Sometimes the students were fine, and then sometimes it seemed as if they were possessed! No matter what I did, it seemed to be wrong. I felt as if I had been dealt a losing hand and that all the students could see my cards.
Fast forward to May 2000. Heather and I decided to move back to her hometown of Fort Worth, TX to be near her family. There is also a nice seminary in the city and I was going to start my graduate work there in the fall. But to pay for my education, and for the family that Heather and I wanted to start, I needed a real job that paid real money. A friend at church told me that, since I had a bachelor’s degree, I could get an alternative certification and become an elementary school teacher. While it wasn’t a dream scenario, especially with my brother gallivanting around South Africa as a missionary, it would pay the bills.
How hard could teaching be?
Taught by a ten-year-old
I began my modest career as an educator as a 4th grade teacher in Fort Worth, TX. I had sixteen students and nary a clue about what to do with them. Luckily, the friend from church who talked me into teaching was also a 4th grade teacher at the same school. By sheer dumb luck, and the grace of God, I somehow survived the year. During that eventful first run, I celebrated the birth of my first son, and continued to volunteer at my local church while taking a few seminary classes at night.
Desperate to cling onto the thin hope that I knew what I was doing, I coasted through teaching, treating it like an 8:00 - 3:00 gig, and poured my all into ministry. I studied and got good grades in all my classes. I fervently did all I could at the church, both on Sundays and Wednesday nights. And while I am quite dense, I couldn’t help but notice a trend starting to emerge.
Everything I did at the church wilted and died. The harder I tried, the less I seemed to connect to the students I worked with, to the point that they mostly stopped showing up. By no great effort on my part, on the other hand, I happened to do quite well at teaching. My students were pretty well-behaved, they seemed to be learning, and they did alright on the state test at the end of the year. I felt as if I was in an episode of The Twilight Zone where everything I wanted to accomplish at church was funneled into the wrong outcome (school).
All of that came to a crashing halt sometime at the end of my first year. As students are wont to do, one of mine wrote me a little note and put it on my desk. She wrote just one sentence, but that one sentence made me rethink everything.
“Dear Mr. Daffern, I’m so glad you became a teacher instead of a preacher. I’ll never forget you.”
What was painfully obvious to my students, but hidden by my refusal to accept reality, was that I was their teacher. While they knew that I wanted to be a preacher, and that I was attending seminary classes at night, they didn’t care. The simple reality was that I was a stable factor in their lives. I was there, day in and day out, and we had fun together. Sure, sometimes we learned as well, but that wasn’t my driving force.
I found that little kids were very funny! Watching them get jokes, try out puns, and learn to appreciate sarcasm was intensely interesting. While I’ll never be a people watcher, like my wife Heather, who could sit on a bench at Walmart for 4 hours and be entertained simply watching people walk by, I did enjoy interacting with the students. I liked them, and they seemed to like me.
A need to compete and to matter
I’ve always been a competitive person. Part of it, I’m sure, is my genes, but a large part of it comes from my unique upbringing. Being an identical twin tends to drive some children to compete and my brother and I, good-naturedly, competed in everything.
So, naturally, I developed a thirst for competition and improvement. I didn’t mind losing (too much) as long as I got decent feedback and felt like I could improve. Pair that with a deep desire to matter, to make a difference with my life, and I was one confused young man. While the work I did at church definitely helped me feed my desire to do something meaningful with my life, I was lousy at it. Yet without even trying or putting forth anything like my best effort, I was doing pretty well for a first-year teacher.
That note from one of my students, however, made me rethink everything. What if I actually tried to be a good teacher? What if I did those teacher-y things like lesson plan on the weekends or spend time trying to make lessons fun? How good could I actually be?
It took a ten-year-old to teach me that what I did mattered. Once the scales fell from my eyes, I looked around me with a fresh perspective. Here was a group of students that would probably never darken the door of a church. For many, I was the first male teacher they had ever had. For those without a positive male role model in their lives, that was powerful. I had the opportunity to redefine how children saw themselves and how they related to the world.
I literally held their future in my hands and I nearly missed it. Does teaching matter? Does it touch the human soul as much as pastors and ministers do?
You better believe it.
And then I began to see the challenge. I saw that I had missed some students. While I had obviously reached the girl who wrote me the note, I had left a few behind. They had passed through my class without being impacted by me, either positively or negatively. The challenge of teaching is infinite. As a teacher, you’ll never arrive. You’ll never master it. It’s asymptotic - seemingly within reach while never able to be perfected.
And so here I am, 20 years later, still in education and loving every minute of it. My brother is still in the ministry and I couldn’t be happier for him. He found his thing and I found mine.
What’s your thing?
Here’s the ugly truth. Everything sucks most of the time.
Teaching is not glamorous and can drive you crazy. By the end of five years, almost one in five teachers will leave the profession.
Everyone loves being a teacher at the start of the year when the desks are lined up nicely and floors still have wax on them. Teacher appreciation week is pretty enjoyable as well, but sometimes that’s all you have.
In between comes the parents who drop their kid off on the first day of school and say, as they are leaving, “He’s bipolar and ADHD. Good luck.”
Happened to me once.
There are the principals who are either way out of their league, or were bred in laboratories designed to rob them of all people skills, or possibly both. Nothing can suck the joy out of teaching quicker than administrators who don’t understand how to get the best out of their teachers.
And we haven’t even discussed the rude, uncontrollable children who are assigned to your roster by some demented twist of fate. Your job is to teach them and get them to score well on a standardized test at the end of year. If you can’t, your job might be on the line. Never mind the fact that they live below the poverty level, move several times a year because their mother can’t afford the rent, stay up until midnight each night playing Fortnite, and never have money for field trips but have a better phone than you and an inexhaustible supply of Takis and Funyuns.
Once the veneer gets scratched off what you thought teaching would be, you’re left with a hot mess of unfunded mandates, district initiatives that seemingly change weekly, pressure beyond belief to help kids pass a test you don’t even believe in, and ungrateful students and disinterested parents.
Are you okay with that?
While teaching in itself is difficult, that’s only one of the job titles you unofficially hold. You are also a surrogate parent, counselor, social worker, behavioral therapist, curriculum developer, test proctor, crisis interventionist, and party planner.
To bring this opening conversation back around full circle, one of the most challenging things about teaching is behavior management. If students would just do what they’re told, everything would be easier, right? And if I suddenly became the heir to Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, things would also be easier, but that’s not going to happen.
The struggle is real. Teaching is incredibly difficult and taxing to your physical, emotional, and spiritual reserves. It also can give your life meaning and purpose.
You’re reading this book right now because you’d like to know more about how to take charge of your classroom, how to get your little imps to behave. We’re about to dive deeply into it, pulling from neuroscience, social-emotional learning, behavioral therapy, traditional classroom management resources, and even parenting books. What I’m probing for in this initial chapter is your resolve.
There are no quick fixes. There are no panaceas. Learning how to take charge in your classroom ironically means that you give most of the control to your students.
In his highly influential book The Energy Bus, Jon Gordon spends a lot of time speaking about the power of positivity, something we’ll get into in the next chapter. He also has something quite profound to say about purpose, naming it as the fuel that gets you through life.
I believe Jon Gordon has hit on something here. Everything sucks most of the time. That’s simply life. To get through it, however, you’ll need some fuel. That fuel comes from your purpose. Without it, you’ll run out of energy long before the finish line.
I shared my story at the beginning of this chapter because that was the beginning of my journey to finding my purpose. Being the hard-headed, stubborn person that I am, I didn’t accept my purpose at face value. I spent the next ten years with one foot in ministry and one in the classroom until God mercifully slammed the door in my face regarding ministry.
What wasn’t clear to me then is clear to me now. The note from that student lit a fire in me that continues to burn. The longer I’m in education, the harder it gets. Yet, to me, that’s what makes it so fulfilling. Not only am I impacting the lives of children every day, I also now work with teachers and principals, helping them through challenging moments as well.
If I could talk to myself 20 years ago, I’d probably tell myself to relax. What I was doing mattered. A lot. Teaching would bring me more joy and fulfillment than I ever thought possible.
So before we go any further in our journey together, let’s pause a moment and talk about you.
What’s your fuel? What’s your purpose? If things get tough, what do you do?
If you could say without a shadow of a doubt, if you knew that you knew that you knew, that teaching is what you were supposed to do, it would be a source of great strength. The first step in taking charge is confidence. The first step in confidence is purpose. When you can walk into your room each day with the assurance that you’re where you’re supposed to be, that you are doing what you were made to do, that knowledge would give you an underlying sense of swagger that would propel you through even the most difficult times.
If you’re not there yet, no worries. Remember, it took me an extra ten years to gain my confidence in teaching. But here are some questions for you to ponder as this chapter closes. These queries don’t have to be answered one way or the other, but are meant to guide your thinking as you consider your commitment to your craft.
Are you willing to struggle through all the idiocy that comes from the central office (or the front office) for the sake of your students?
What are you willing to sacrifice to give your students a fighting chance? Your time? Your money? Your emotional reserves?
What injustices bother you? What do you see in your students or in your community that drives you to show up each morning at 7:00 am, rain or shine?
If you knew for a fact that you would die one year from today, how would you spend that last year? Would you still teach?
Teaching is not for the faint of heart. It isn’t sexy. It isn’t fun most of the time.
But it matters. More than you will ever know.
To make the changes necessary to take charge of your classroom and to take charge of each moment with your students, you’re going to need to unlearn. A lot.
You will be asked to try things that make you uncomfortable and that you won’t be sure will work.
They will work but they’re hard. There are no quick fixes in education, but if you have a solid purpose, if you know why you are a teacher, then let that be the fuel to guide you through this journey.
Because without fuel you’ll never reach the end.