Remembering Your “Why” Will Not Heal Burnout

Sometime in the last decade, a phrase created to motivate teachers began sweeping schools across the nation. Administrators instantly latched on to this phrase for several reasons. It’s hard to argue with. It appeals to teachers’ core goodness. And most notably, it puts the onus for motivation on the teachers themselves, not on administrators or higher leaders to improve working conditions for teachers. What is this phrase? “Remember your ‘why.’”

What does “remember your ‘why’” mean?

“Remember your ‘why’” is encouragement via distraction.

The “why” is the reason you became a teacher. For some, it’s to change lives. To connect young people to a subject you’re passionate about. To be the kind of teacher you needed when you were young.

The idea is that if teachers simply remember and reflect on these true-but-sentimental reasons, they will persevere through the difficulties of teaching. Is it good to stop and reflect on these core motivations? Sure. However, some administrators are misusing this phrase to shirk leadership responsibilities, ignore valid concerns, and refuse to engage with the reality of what it’s like teaching in 2024.

This Reddit teacher shared her experience with the off-hand “remember your why” comment here:

“Currently sitting in a staff meeting and yep. There it is. An educational video about knowing your ‘why’ and then wanting us to share out our why. Oh and did I mention we are about to go on strike because our district refuses to listen to their teachers? I want to throw a freaking brick at the wall. I knew you’d all understand. So frustrating to be treated like children.

“Edit: After speaking with colleagues and the numerous responses here, I realize that the reason this question is so frustrating is because all of us already know our why, but admin don’t actually want to hear it nor do they then give us what we need to support that why. It turns into gaslighting. I actually do love my work and my students and clearly didn’t get into this for the pay. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be paid. Or treated like a professional. Or reminded that I’m ‘in it for the kids.’ No sh**.” —Southern-Magnolia12

More teachers weighed in with their experiences on this thread:

We had to write an essay

“We had to write a whole essay on ‘what is your why?’ before the first day of school, which was total bullsh**. Between meetings and a motivational speaker and a Rah Rah ‘kick off the year’ staff pep rally, I had slightly less than 6 hours to get my room ready for the first day of school. Many of the teachers didn’t write it but I got on the sh** list last year so I wrote a bunch of drivel and turned it in. No feedback. I doubt the principal even read it.” —we_gon_ride

Because pizza parties don’t improve working conditions

“Did it come with a pizza party? Admin get bonus points for trying to bury things with a pizza party.” —AreYouAlrightBoy

Would you ask other professionals that question?

“I have a litmus test to determine if you’re being treated like a professional: ‘Would you ask a room full of CPAs that question?’ Being asked ‘what’s your why’ fails so hard. You shouldn’t be paying me to care, you should be paying me to educate children. Asking me to reflect on my ‘why’ is an indication of and a distraction from the real story: that teachers are all burning out because the conditions we are working in are miles and miles and light-years and galaxies away from those necessary to actually educate children.” —notsoDifficult314

Not everyone’s “why” is a pretty answer

“This is the kind of ‘why’ the admins and the community are wanting to hear. My ‘why’ is that I’m stuck because after 13 years, it’s hard to change professions without financial ruin. The powers that be don’t want to hear this.” —Separate_Outcome4620

Teaching is a job

“Money. I can’t pay my bills with letters from former students or jeans days.” —CynicInRVA

We had to watch a singing “Remember your ‘why’”

“Did you have to watch the video where the guy sings? Basic ass admins must be 99% of the viewer count for that video.” —SheilaGirlface

What if I don’t know “why” I’m here?

“‘Why are you here?’ I don’t know. I ask myself that in the parking lot every morning.” —eukaryote3

There are multiple “why”s, and not all are equally important

“My whys, in order of importance to me: I need to pay rent and buy groceries, summers off, teaching is the only history-related career I get with a bachelor’s in history, we’re so short-staffed I’m basically unfireable, there’s like 2 kids in each of my classes who actually listen to what I have to say and understand why my class is important, and they give me a shred of hope.” —SovietMudkip_

Reflecting leads some people to burnout

“It’s dangerous to make me look inward for the reason I’m still doing this. I’m liable to figure out it’s not worth it anymore. I could retire pretty soon but I can’t collect for a while.” —well_uh_yeah

Because my mortgage lender doesn’t accept feelings as payment

“Because my mortgage lender only takes legal tender?” —Enigmamaught

It feels like we’re being asked to deny our reality.

“It’s gaslighting. They want US to feel bad for NOT making teaching our whole identity.” —Common_Apricot2491

Because so many things get in the way of my “why.”

“My WHY is to help the next gen be empowered to have fulfilling lives and contribute to a better society. But what grates me is that so many things get in the way of my ‘why.’ Those things are out of my control, barely in the domain of admin (which they should prioritize over PD), and society in general. Things like having kids come to my classroom ready to learn, seeing their efforts as worthwhile, and having consistent consequences for the choices they make.” —foomachoo

#mathjokes

“As a math teacher, I will share my y after you find x.” —GS2702

What would administrators say?

“‘Know your why’ – presented to you by admins – people who left the classroom in order to chase more money. That’s all you need to know about that.” —Trixie_Lorraine

It’s code for something else

“‘Know your why’ is just code for ‘What non-monetary compensation do you plan to think about to distract yourself from the lack of monetary compensation for this job?’” —dinkleberg32

In reflecting (no pun intended) on these varied experiences shared by teachers, it becomes evident that the phrase “Remember your why” has morphed into something beyond its original intent. It’s become a mantra used less to uplift and more to sidestep the real issues plaguing educators today. While it’s true that most of us entered this profession driven by a deep passion for teaching and making a difference, this does not negate the necessity for practical support, fair compensation, and professional respect.

Let’s not lose sight of the fact that while our “why”s are valid, they are NOT antidotes to systemic issues and burnout. In fact, it’s flirting with toxic positivity.

So administrators, the next time you’re tempted to ask teachers about their “why”s, maybe ask first yourselves “how” you can support the dedicated professionals who are up against so much in 2024.

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