The Importance of Compelling Whys in Education | Steve Barkely

Compelling Whys

My colleague, Jim Malanowski, recently presented a workshop for teachers and administrators K12 in Wisconsin. When Jim shared with me that he explored the need for teachers to examine “why they teach”, I asked him to share his thinking in a blog.

Here’s Jim:

I spent the last eleven years of my 45-year career in education at our local high school, first as a teacher and then as the principal.  The school is highly respected in the state, not only for its academics, but also for its successes outside the classroom.  A large part of the reason for that success has been the quality of the staff.  When I returned to the classroom, people invariably asked me, “So how’s it different?”  My response was that young people are young people so that hadn’t changed a lot.  What was different was the obsession with ‘data’.

As I thought about it, it struck me that as a profession we had gotten caught up in a current that was slowly sweeping us away.  I always emphasized that the four ‘take-aways’ from school are Knowledge, Attitudes, Skills, and Habits, but it seemed that the importance of knowledge and skills had grown to be overrated.  Frequently, the specific work skills that a person needs to be successful in a job are learned ‘on the job’.  The real value of school lies in the attitudes and habits that a person develops there.

While the ‘unmeasurable’ benefits of school have been replaced by an emphasis on accountability, we have become consumed with a focus on the other-imposed “What” of our work while we try to figure out more creative ways to make the “How” more engaging and productive.  In the process, teachers and administrators have been forced to justify any divergence from the curriculum.  As a result, we have come to focus on the “What” and “How” of teaching, ignoring the “Why”.  We seem to have simply forgotten the importance of Why…

In the PLS 3rd Learning course “Teaching through Learning Channels”, they teach the importance of what they call the “Compelling Why”.  The Compelling Why is defined as “an emotionally linked reason or motive that drives a person…”  The following video is a great example of a person who has a powerful reason to struggle to learn to read: – The Reader

The focus of the Compelling Why is usually on students.  But what about teachers and administrators?  As educators, we, too, need to have a strong Compelling Why!  I’ve often said, “You cannot give what you don’t have!”  For students to feel freedom, their teachers need to feel free.  In order for teachers to take risks, their principals need to feel comfortable taking risks.  For students to feel a strong Compelling Why, their teachers must have a strong sense of Why as well.  Just as students need to answer the question, “WHY am I here?”  or “WHY do I want to do this?” so, too, do the adults at school!  What is the reason for a teacher to be excited about coming to school each day?  How can we, as leaders, remind them of the importance of their daily work?  In the midst of all that’s ‘school’ today, how can we keep them centered on WHY they’re involved in the life-work they’ve chosen?

In Simon Sinek’s TED Talk, he takes the position that the most successful companies are the ones that work from the ‘inside out’.  Rather than emphasizing their product and ‘What it does for someone’, or ‘How it can help someone’, those companies start with “Why” they are in business, and then address the How and What.  He maintains that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it”.  I’d suggest that students won’t learn because of What we’re selling, they’ll learn because of Why we’re selling it.  If you don’t know why you do what you do, why would anyone ‘buy’ from you?

I recently had the opportunity to work with the schools in Hartford, Wisconsin.  It’s an excellent district that’s building solid young people.  This past year, their students spent time in immersion experiences in Peru and France; their band started preparations for a trip to London; and a student, solely on his own initiative, created a video on the school’s nutrition program that won a statewide competition.  The attitudes and habits of good manners, initiative, self-discipline, and the awareness of how to function in a foreign culture were no doubt modeled and absorbed through interactions with the adults in those students’ lives.

In my kickoff keynote, my goal was to prompt the audience to examine some of those habits and attitudes and have them make a conscious choice about ‘Who they are’ and ‘Why they are working with young people’.  They laughed, they talked…and thought, and maybe even cried a bit.  Hopefully, when they left, they chose to remember their Compelling Why.  That conscious choice needs to permeate their work.  That awareness needs to translate into a strong Compelling Why for their efforts.  A strong Compelling Why, stuck firmly in your heart, isn’t just about today.  It’s about your life work.

It’s what kept me coming back for 45 years…

Thanks Jim. You can contact Jim with your thoughts or possible interest in having him work with your staff. Jim Malanowski (

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One Response to “ Compelling Whys ”

  1. Jan VanGiIder Says:

    I just had a similar conversation with a former student of mine on Facebook. Thank you for these comments.

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