Why purpose matters inside and outside the classroom

Clarifying your professional purpose is essential to teaching well according to Mark Coleman, Head of Learning and Teaching at Wadhurst.

Defining our professional purpose involves thinking about what we do and why we do it. This may sound like a straightforward, even obvious, practice but the fact is many of us don’t engage in it regularly; it is not part of our workday routine. This means we run the risk of continuing to do things in the same way because we’ve always done it that way. 

When I first came to Wadhurst, I moved from a School managerial position into a role as a classroom science teacher. This gave me the opportunity to rediscover my purpose—to look more deeply at what I was doing and consider why I was doing it. Up until this point, I don’t think I had been truly challenged to think about my purpose as an educator. Now, purpose drives much of what I do.

One of the earliest things I did when I came to Wadhurst was to try to identify what were the desirable traits displayed by students who performed well in Science classes. I tracked a few students over a number of weeks, noting things they did that seemed to sit well with how I viewed the learning of science, and noting things that didn’t. This gave me a clearer picture of what I felt I needed to be trying to develop (and discourage) in all students. It clarified my purpose as a teacher of science.

Another example of the importance of clarity of purpose in the classroom can be seen in the management of those environments. Most students love to argue and this is something we want to encourage in early secondary school; students pushing up against the boundaries we provide to see which are the most flexible, which are most robust and perhaps more importantly, which are most authentic. At the same time, they understand that these boundaries are important. They know that our purpose isn’t simply to establish the authority or to punish bad behaviour, but to make sure our students can get the most out of each learning opportunity.

Is this inviting civil disobedience in the class room? I don’t think so, but I also don’t think any teacher wants passive compliance. Applying the purpose lens to this, it is more likely that we want to develop our students’ capacities to operate effectively in a civil society. Key to this is understanding the concept of courtesy and the pursuit of this underpins classroom management. Often it is confused with respect. Respect is different. It may come after developing relationships that involve interpersonal understanding and unrelenting courtesy. Importantly, we know that positive relationships are powerful drivers in student learning and so the pathway to this might be courtesy, relationship, respect; in many cases I think we have this the wrong way around. This may seem like a subtle, even frivolous distinction to make, but in their early secondary years, students are starting to become more critical of the knowledge they receive and look closely at what words actually mean. Our purpose in all this is to develop boys who are willing to question—politely—and to become assertive members of the classroom. By assertive we certainly don’t mean aggressive or uncooperative, but being willing to ask questions such as ‘Why are we doing this task?’ and ‘How does this connect to the other things we’ve been learning?’ Purposeful learning environments support the pursuit of this goal.

There’s also a broader purpose to developing this critical instinct. As our students move beyond the classroom and into the wider world, it’s important that they’re able to act as educated consumers, and as employees or employers who are confident enough to ask questions in order to make processes clearer and more efficient. Their ability to define purpose in this way ensures everyone around them is on the same page, working towards a common goal.

When I began my role as the Head of Learning and Teaching at Wadhurst, one of my first priorities was to ask our staff: What is the ideal Wadhurst boy? At the end of Year 8 when they cross the Wadhurst oval for the last time and walk towards the Senior School, what are the characteristics we want them to have? By defining these characteristics, we created a shared purpose for all our staff to work towards each day—developing young men of good character— and it is this purpose that helps drive our actions, priorities and decision-making on a day to day basis. 

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