What’s Your Why?

I Teach Because of This, Not Because of That

by Jon Bergmann

This past week I had two fascinating conversations with two very disparate people who have made very different life choices. Their stories re-emphasized to me some deep principles about life. Both of these stories occurred while I was either traveling to or attending the 10th Ed Leadership Conference in Lucknow, India.

The first story took place at Newark International airport. While waiting for my flight, a man sat down next to me, and we struck up a conversation. We were both headed to India, and as is often the case, we asked each other what we did for a living. I shared about Flipped Learning and my role, and he shared with me his story. He told me he worked for a Fortune 100 company and was going to India to sell stuff. He confided that he didn’t want to go. He said, “I am 60 years old, and making another sale just doesn’t seem to matter anymore.” He continued, “I have all that I ever need; a big house, fancy cars, the whole deal, and I wonder if it was all worth it.” He told me that he envied me because I was “making a difference.”

The second story takes place at the City Montessori School in Lucknow. The conference was a three-day event that brought together about 400 school leaders (principals and founders) from around India. Since I didn’t speak until the end of the second day, I spent the majority of my first day just trying to meet these amazing delegates. At one point, a young man came up to me and gave me some advice. He introduced himself (He was from the US) and told me I had a pretty strong accent and might want to slow down my delivery when I took the stage. I thanked him for his advice, and we exchanged pleasantries.

Little did I know that my encounter with this young man would rock my world.

As the conference proceeded, I learned more and more about the challenges of delivering a quality education in the Indian context. I learned how many parents are taking their children out of the public schools in favor of private schools. I learned how teaching students in English is a challenge given that their student’s first language could be one of many of the different languages/dialects spoken in India. I learned how poorly teachers are paid, and the difficulties of working with inadequate supplies and resources.

When it was  my turn to speak, I hope that they heard from me that I was trying to understand the challenges they faced. But I realize that as someone from the West, I don’t really get it.

Then on the last day, the young man (his name is also Jon) stood up to speak, and I realized that some things in life matter more. Jon shared his story. His passion is to bring literacy to the illiterate. Approximately 30% of Indians can’t read or write. Jon and his wife have dedicated their lives to change that story. But it gets better: To reach those who can’t read, Jon and his wife have chosen to live in one of the many slums of India. They realize that if they are going to reach those who can’t read, they must be where they are. His purpose in coming to this conference was to encourage each of the schools to commit to eradicating illiteracy in and around their schools.

Another thing Jon shared was, “I can’t tell you how many people I have hired and fired. What I really need are people who want to help the people I work with. I can teach any literate person how to teach another person to read. But if they don’t have the right attitude, I can’t use them…”

And as I reflect on the lives of teachers all over the world, I wondered to what extent teaching is a job or a mission? My observation is that for some teaching is merely a job while for others it is a mission. For some, teaching is just a way to pay the bills while for others it is a high calling. Frankly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with approaching teaching as a job as long as teachers do it well. But at the end of the day, it is much more fulfilling when teaching is more than just a job.

So I am humbled by the example of Jon and his wife. I have not given up everything to go and live in a slum. I have not sacrificed to that extent to help others.

Ultimately, this was a wake-up call for me about the reason that I do what I do.

A job or a mission? Does it matter?  We’d love to hear your thoughts. You can share them with us and other faculty candidates below.