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#oneword: Purpose

January 3, 2016

I wasn’t going to have any New Year’s resolutions. I now have three: blog more, run more, drink less soda.

I also wasn’t going to respond to the #oneword challenge for 2016. I  now have three words in mind for this as well.




Along with the rest of the Rebel Alliance in the #oklaed blogosphere, I write to raise awareness about critical policy issues, willful mythology disparaging schools, and general threats to public education. And as I wrote back in April, I’m probably impressed with our new state superintendent’s sense of urgency more than  anything else. This mindset is also probably why I often tell people to find what feeds your soul and pursue it fiercely.

As fitting as these words are, I’m choosing purpose as my one word for 2016. I wrote about this word last July, along with the words autonomy and mastery with respect to Daniel Pink’s book Drive.

As a superintendent, I’m fortunate that my board gives me as much autonomy as they do. As for mastery of my job, I hope that will come in time. The key is to have purpose. If I get to do what I want – even if I’m good at what I choose to do – none of it matters if I don’t have reasons for doing what I do. Sure, happy accidents are a thing that happen, but I don’t want to live my life, and I certainly don’t want to pursue my career, waiting for things to happen.

Here are a few quotes that use the word, and what they contribute to my thinking as we begin 2016:

“The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.”  – Albert Camus

This is why we #oklaed bloggers blog. This is why we go to the Oklahoman website and hold our collective breath knowing that there is a decent chance our profession is being marginalized. This is why we chose not to remain silent during the four horrific years of Janet Barresi’s administration. We write because of the people in power who are hell-bent in destroying our public education system with lies and neglect.

“A purpose of human life, no matter who is controlling it, is to love whoever is around to be loved.”  – Kurt Vonnegut

More importantly, we write because of the students who show up in our schools each day. This is why we teach. This is why we do our jobs. I keep saying that we have to love the kids more than we love the rules, and this goes for the lousy rules that have been made for schools and that only serve to harm children. Fortunately, we have parents who understand that teachers don’t create education policy.

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”  – Eleanor Roosevelt

When our schools function well, this is what we do. When we are saddled with mandates that reformers don’t see as necessary for the private schools to which they want to feed vouchers, we fall short of utmost. Test prep booklets and remediation software programs are definitely beneath the threshold for qualifying as newer, richer experiences.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”  – Ralph Waldo Emerson

While I agree with Emerson, in part, I still think that we can do these things and be happy. We can taste experience to the utmost and still live useful, honorable, and compassionate lives. The last phrase here, to have lived and lived well is what keeps those of us who’ve stayed in education right where we are. When our office collected money for an elementary student to have Christmas presents he wouldn’t otherwise have had, and he looked at us halfway through opening them and said, I must be the luckiest kid in the world, I’d say we had experienced a purposeful moment. The trick is to add these moments up so that they are common, but that they never feel routine.

 “One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.”  – Stephen Hawking

When I was in my 20s, I used to say that what we do isn’t who we are. I was a teacher, but that wasn’t what defined me.

I was an idiot.

Teaching defines me. Even 13 years after I taught my last group of tenth graders, I consider myself to be a high school English teacher. I wish I had known the Camus quote from above then, but I definitely stressed the importance of writing. I wish I had known lots of things then.

Public education is my upbringing. My mom taught special education in Chickasha and Norman for 29 years, and my step-father was a college professor at OU.

Public education is my work. For 23 years, I’ve tried to help students in this state get farther in life through what they know and what they can do.

Public education is even my hobby. I read and blog education. I teach a masters class. My spare time is consumed with my profession.


Each of these quotes have personal meaning to me too. Just as, much to my chagrin, my 18 year-old saying that she drives with a sense of purpose, resonates with me. I don’t know where she learned that…probably from her mother.

Last week, when I was in Colorado fiercely pursuing a different passion – one of few I have not related to education – I snapped a picture from the top of my last ski run of the day. I had three choices going in all different directions, all of which would lead me down to the base. Did it matter which one I took?

It made me think of Robert Frost: choosing the road less traveled. If you like a less-traveled road, take it. If you like crowds, follow them. As for me, I just look at the path and see if it seems to have something I like as I begin to travel it.  Sometimes there are people there. Sometimes not. Unlike Frost, I don’t think the wear on the path makes all the difference. I think knowing what you want when you finish it does.

In other words, purpose matters more than the path.

From that signpost, I went downhill. I went fast. I lowered my head and let gravity take me to the bottom as quickly as it would. I guess I ski like my daughter drives – with a sense of purpose.

Other words may fit specific occasions as 2016 progresses. When I’m speaking with those who hold public office and candidates who may replace them, I’ll be direct. When I’m discussing changes and cuts that we will face in my district because of the state’s completely predictable and preventable budget collapse, I’ll be as delicate as possible. I hope to have passion this year. I also know that we all have to be ready for disappointment.

None of these will deter me from my purpose, though.

I am a teacher. I am a public education advocate. I will speak my mind. I will write when I can. I will share what others say and keep the conversation going.

Whatever tomorrow brings, I’ll be there.

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