#122: Find Your “Why”: What Drove You to be an Educator?
This content first appeared on APUEdge.com.
Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Associate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education
What motivated you to be an educator in the first place? How do you find meaning in your life and work? In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides guidance on how to identify your “why” and how that information can help you get through challenging times.
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Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents, who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Welcome to the online teaching lounge today, I’m glad you’re with me. And, likely, you have an interest in teaching online, or perhaps you’ve been doing it a very long time. Either way, this podcast is typically targeted or focused on those of you who are out there doing the good work of teaching online.
This can be a very challenging profession and professional endeavor. And it can sometimes be just downright discouraging. There are times where we have to really pick ourselves up and push hard to get through the toughest times in online teaching. And if you’ve been doing this very long, you know exactly what I’m talking about. So, today we’re going to talk about what fuels you. Or in other words, what is your “why” behind what you’re doing, as you’re teaching online?
The more clarity and the more direction we can get around the why behind what we’re doing, the easier it’s going to be to continuously push through those tougher times that tend to discourage or be disheartening to us all as we’re teaching online.
What kind of things might come along that could put us in a funk or in a space where we need that connection with our why behind what we’re doing? Really, it could be anything. It could be some kind of outside situation in the world, something happening, clear across the world that, for some reason, really impacts us personally, or for which we emotionally feel quite invested in.
It could be something in the organization for which we teach, maybe things are becoming difficult in that organization. Or we might be suffering from lack of resources, lack of time, overwork, overburdened workloads, lots of different things can create stress in the work situation that we have.
Maybe we teach for more than one institution, and we’re struggling to balance deadlines, timelines, the deliverables we need to turn in, or all that work we need to grade for our students.
Or, maybe it’s something totally personal. Some of the things that impact us personally could be our own health, our mental, physical or emotional health, our ability to connect with other people, or the frequency of connecting with others to enrich ourselves. Maybe we’re feeling lonely, isolated, detached from those around us. Other things that could happen might be in our home situation or our relationships. Maybe we’re struggling with a child that’s having challenges or a spouse.
Whatever it is, there are so many reasons why it’s powerful and useful to find the why behind everything we’re doing in our online work. So today, think about what led you to become an educator, first of all, and let’s start with all those things that easily pop into your mind.
What Drove You to be an Educator?
For example, did you ever have an educator that you really admired? Did you have one that inspired you or made you feel like you really belonged? If you can think about an educator who promoted your value as a human being and really pushed you to become who you are today, perhaps you became an educator so you could give back or so you could be like that person. Think about that initial start that got you into teaching.
Maybe it’s the subject matter. Maybe it wasn’t a person at all, but more the topics, the interest, the path you took through college studying this stuff? Is there a bigger meaning behind all of that that really drives your passion to teach it to other people?
Is it the ability you have to make an impact? Do you see the value of your teaching on other people easily? Are you able to notice what they can glean from you? The somewhat-apprentice learning they get from you? The way they’re nurtured by you? Are you able to help people feel connected, like they have purpose and they have belonging? Let’s start thinking about all those deeper meaning type of feelings that we have about what we do.
How Do You Find Meaning?
There’s a man named Viktor Frankl who is well known for his philosophies that came out of his experience living in the concentration camp for a time. And he created this theory that we really gain meaning from three different things. We’re going to get meaning in life through our work, through love and through suffering. And sometimes the work we do every day when we’re teaching, whether we’re teaching face to face, or we’re teaching online, that work brings us a sense of meaning, like, we’re just contributing to the world.
We’re putting good out there, we’re giving every day, and we have the ability to get meaning from that very thing we’re doing. If you’re in that group, you’re not alone, a lot of people, their why is the work. You can lose yourself in the work, you can feel a great purpose in the work. And daily, if you get out of bed excited about doing the work, it’s very likely that the work of teaching itself really excites you, and you get meaning in life from this endeavor.
This idea of getting meaning in life through love. Now, this is the idea of those cherished personal relationships that are closest to you, the deep love that you have for others, and the way you want to be with them, and build relationships with them and connect with them. Is there something about your students that really brings out your love for humanity, for individuals, for other people? Do you feel this deeper feeling for them that drives your work? Is the meaning that you’re getting in your educating coming from that love?
And lastly, through suffering. Many times, if we suffer some very difficult thing, it could be an illness, or an accident or tragedy or any kind of external or internal suffering, there can be this constructed meaning through the suffering. One can decide to turn that suffering into transformative development and growth, and really find deep purpose and meaning in that suffering.
Sometimes in our online teaching work, we might be motivated through the work itself. And maybe at other times through the love. This last year, when our institution had its large graduation exercise, there were hundreds, even thousands of people there. And it would be very easy to connect to the students there, face to face and feel love for them, especially if you taught them in several courses over time. It’s also very easy to feel connected to this work by loving colleagues, really feeling like those relationships have developed over years. And there’s a deep love and respect for those that one works with.
And then, of course, there are those hard times where things just all come together into a horrible crucible of suffering. And it could be the late nights struggling through teaching a tough concept, grading hundreds of essays, and just pushing through when there are other things competing for our time as well. Or it could be even beyond that—the personal challenges, the health challenges, the world challenges, and all the suffering involved with those things.
So, looking at all three of those ways people find meaning in life and in work. What resonates most with you today? What seems to light your fire? What brings the why into what you do? Why did you decide to be an educator? And why do you keep doing it?
It might be easy to say, “Well, I do it because it’s a paycheck. Well, I have student loans, and I do it because I need to pay them off.” Or “I do it because, well that’s the job I have, or because I work here.” If any of those ideas come into your mind, I want to encourage you to just set them aside temporarily. Those are important ideas and worth thinking about. If we take it to a little bit of a deeper level, what beyond that keeps you showing up every day? Because you could work anywhere.
With your brain capacity, experience, intelligence and educational background, you could get a job anywhere, but you work where you work, doing what you do with your gifts, talents, attributes, and the ability to make your unique contribution. Why is it that you’re doing it?
What is it that you love about it, or that you get out of doing that? What motivates you to be there?
I encourage you to find a place where you can brainstorm these ideas, write them down and list everything that comes to mind. You’re not going to show it to anyone else. And it’s okay if some of the things that come out are things that you wouldn’t be proud to share. Like if you don’t really want to tell anyone that the main reason you do what you do is for the money. It’s okay to write it down. You don’t have to share it. It’s your business. But write all the different reasons why you’re doing online teaching.
Some people like this because they can reach a lot of people all over the world and really engage with many different cultures and people from different backgrounds and learn as well as teach at the same time. And some people do it for convenience, they could teach face to face, but they like the flexibility that comes from teaching online. Whatever comes to your mind, write it all, make a huge list—some people call this a “brain dump”—and sort it all out.
And once you’ve written down all the different reasons why you do what you do teaching online, sort them into different levels. So, we have the very practical, basic “why.” Maybe because it’s flexible, maybe because it brings us a good paycheck, or whatever that is.
And then start to look for those things that you might have listed, that go to a slightly higher level or a deeper level of thinking for you. Maybe you have a connection to your students that you can’t get any other way. Maybe you feel a huge reward in certain types of situations, when you’re teaching online. Whatever that is, let’s sort them into kind of levels to see what, ultimately, is your biggest “why.”
Does it really boil down to the practical arrangement? Does it hit your deeper level of getting the meaning through the work itself or through the love you have? Or through the suffering that it might involve?
And then we’ll take this one step further. Once you’ve made your list that creates your why behind what you do, what kinds of words and language do you use when you talk about your online teaching? “I have to go do this.” “Well, I’m late again.” I mean, things like this, do they come out?
Or is it, “I get to go do this,” “I’m really fortunate to have this opportunity” and “I can’t wait to get back in that classroom”? The words we use can actually create meaning all by themselves for our thinking and for our brains. So, if we’re constantly saying things in somewhat a negative, pressured light, like a “have to,” that starts to make us feel like the meaning is very superficial, or maybe it’s less than it really is.
And if we use words that empower us to find that sense of meaning through what we’re doing, then as we go to the work, it gives us this subconscious desire to get that meaning out of it, to have a deeper purpose behind what we do.
I have thought about this a lot. I have a son who works in restoration work. And in his company, he goes into people’s basements when they’ve had a flood or some kind of disaster that has destroyed part of their home. And he is part of the crew that initially arrives when they’ve had this disaster and tears up and mucks out and cleans out whatever has overflowed or exploded or erupted underneath their home.
Sometimes it’s a very disgusting job that most people would not want to do, especially when something like a sewer has backed up. And when I was speaking to my son about what he does, and asking him why he does this job, he had a really positive why behind it.
He said, he works with people in their most desperate hour, in some pretty devastating circumstances through which they are suffering, and they can’t see a way out. And he is there, superhero in his way, able to completely block it off, make it a sterile environment, clean it out, tear it out and refresh it so that they can have the new materials put in and have their house back into a livable condition, even better than it was before. And, in this way, it is like being a superhero, saving people in their darkest hour.
As he thinks about his why, of course, there are some pretty bad experiences that he’s going to have in that job. The dirty work of restoration before it’s time to do the restoration itself, getting rid of the old stuff that’s there. That’s the hardest part. So, I admire that why, and I’m sure it comes in handy a lot of times when he’s thinking about the hard parts of the job.
Just like that job, as online educators we have wonderful things we can do for people meeting them wherever they are and helping them become educated when they might not otherwise have access to this kind of opportunity.
And during the hard times, if we can create a few statements like my son did about his restoration work and remind ourselves of those things when we are in our toughest moments, knowing the why behind what we do for our own selves and our own work will empower us and help us more than anyone else ever could. I hope you’ll think about your why and take it home today and write up a few statements that help you remember it.
Keep it in a place you can look at it often. And enjoy being the online educator that you are, through the hard times and through the good times.
Thank you for being here. We’re all in this together getting through the profession we have of being online educators. I wish you all the best and hope that you feel uplifted this week. And I wish you all the best in your teaching this coming week as well.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best switches this coming week in your online teaching journey.