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Start with WHY, but make sure it's the right why.

Most people are familiar with the concept of Start with Why, made famous by Simon Sinek. The basic idea is that people are motivated not by WHAT something is (the product) or by HOW the company makes it, but instead by WHY the organization exists. In education, many teachers intuitively understand this idea and always try to get their students to see the why behind what they are learning.

In school leadership, we are much more likely to build buy-in (see post) and create collaborative organizations when we start with a shared why. We see leaders help teams think about their why as a way to tap into the reason teachers entered the field in the first place. This renews motivation and engenders ownership around the work being done at the school.

The problem is that we’re focusing on the wrong why.

Think about this scenario. As a school leader or instructional coach leading professional learning, you want the staff to connect with the initiative or topic at a deeper level. Just like with students, we don’t want the reason they are engaging in the work to be: “I’m here, because my principal told me to be here.” We want them to think: “I’m engaging in this work, because it will help my students.” So, we set about trying to connect to this deeper purpose. We might use data to show the student needs that exist. Or, we might have teachers engage in an activity that promotes why they entered education. Then, we shift into talking about WHAT the initiative or new learning is and HOW we can accomplish it.

While this is certainly better than not starting with WHY, it’s the wrong WHY. As a teacher, it can be motivating to connect to my general WHY of being an educator--helping students--but what I really need to know is WHY this particular initiative is going to help my students more than all the other possible ones I could be spending my time on. What I need is the WHY behind the HOW and the WHAT.

Here’s an example:

Initiative -- Improving teacher feedback

Why--we aren’t meeting our student growth goals. We are passionate about helping students.

How--we’re going to focus on teacher feedback as a way to improve student learning.

What--feedback looks like…


Initiative -- Improving teacher feedback

Why--WHY teacher feedback?

  • We aren’t meeting our growth goals

  • Research is clear that feedback is one of the most impactful ways to increase student learning.

  • We’ve gathered data on our current feedback practices and compared that with what research says is effective and we have some areas we can work on.

How--WHY are we engaging in this structure (whole group PD, coaching, PLC focus, etc.)?

  • We know that job embedded professional learning is much more effective than just sit and get.

  • We’ve had the opportunity to engage in similar cycles of improvement before and found that they made a big difference in our practice and with our student outcomes (collective efficacy).

What--feedback looks like...

As a Leader:

Are you clear on the theory of action that provides the why to the school improvement initiatives your building is engaged in? Do you share that with staff?

As a coach:

Do you help teachers understand the why behind the coaching work you do with them?

We are all more committed when we're clear on and agree with the why behind our work. Helping create a shared why is one of the most important jobs as a leader.

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