Completely On Purpose

From the onset of our training as teachers, we learned about the importance of creating strong objectives everyday we enter the classroom. That objective drives the lesson, activities, and assessments at the end of the period or term. However, when we walk into the classroom something much bigger than an objective comes with us: purpose. Purpose in many ways resembles an objective, yet our purpose in life enables us to pursue objectives with the passion and fervor required to achieve ambitious goals that we set out for ourselves.

I am not the most knowledgeable person in matters regarding physics, yet I’ve learned over time that the paradigm of physics shifted over the years from a Newtonian approach to more of a Quantum approach. Many authors in the fields of leadership and management suggest that the linear Newtonian worldview permeates our every thought process. Because of this, we perceive leadership, management, and our lives as a series of causes and effects linked together in a predictable string. The new worldview in the Quantum—or Chaotic—mindset suggests the impossibility of prediction. Causality lies in the eyes of the beholder, and the researcher or investigator finds that which they wish to find. The observation of chaotic systems suggests this, as scientists observe a formula creating random phenomena in what should be a predictable system. Yet, amidst the chaos observers found something they did not expect to find—order.

In this new strange chaotic world with order, scientists began to seek what created order in those systems. What they found they soon called “the strange attractor”. This strange attractor seemed to pull the randomness towards a center, and create a pattern that resembled order. In our lives, purpose serves as this strange attractor. As pointed out in our opening post, we live in a world with infinite choice. Each day we enter the classroom there exist thousands of facial expressions alone we can choose to present to our children. We can express the same idea with and endless supply of words. What then must guide us? The objective guides our activities and assessments, but purpose guides our steps.

Viktor Frankl wrote the book Mans Search for Meaning after his imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp. He chronicled the events in the camp and discovered a trend among the survivors. Those with a purpose, he explained simply, survived. Purpose gives us a reason to live. Elie Weisel made a similar conclusion in his Night series. The US Men’s Basketball “Redeem Team” earned its name and won gold medals because of its purpose in the Beijing Olympics. Michael Phelps works out harder than any other human because of his purpose to become the greatest swimmer of all time. Purpose allow us to survive difficult situations and allows us to achieve greatness.

When we signed up to Teach for America, or to teach at all, we signed up with a purpose. Many of us bought into the mission statement of, “One day all students will have an opportunity to achieve an excellent education”. Others followed their own purpose for joining. Regardless, we walk into the classroom each day for a reason. I wake up every day at five in the morning. I hop on a bus at 5:45 so I can be to school to teach a zero period class. My purpose prevents me from hitting the snooze button indefinitely and forces me into that shower most mornings. (Hey, sometimes you just need those extra minutes of sleep). When I interact with my students, I keep that purpose in mind. So when I ask them “Are you in another galaxy right now, or are you intentionally being rude?” it follows from my sense of purpose, and from the fact that I will do everything in my power to assist that student in learning.

As a second year member of Teach for America, I’m beginning to wonder about what comes next. The prospect of continuing to teach exists, or possibly working for Teach for America. That would continue the purpose that I began over a year ago. Perhaps my path lies elsewhere. For many of us it does. We may enter the world of finance and finally buy drinks for everyone. Many will go on to law school or other professional schools. As we make the transition, and think about the transition, I urge all of us to remain mindful of our purpose in life. Teach for America blessed us by giving an assumed purpose that we take for granted. Leaving the fold of this strange cult could leave us in uncharted territory, where we must determine our own trajectory. When we lose purpose, our lives become empty and lack meaning. And I certainly never want to live that life.

–John Harlow


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