Finding Your Purpose in Education

Chris McNutt
November 25, 2018
Finding my purpose in education was born out of an immense frustration with education itself.

With so much focus on students finding their purpose in life, it’s worth noting how little teachers consider their place. The initial response is usually — “Well, my purpose is to educate children for a better future.” — or varied platitudes — but so many have ventured from this trail. Instead, they’re left anxious, depressed, and generally discontent at the system they’ve found themselves in. Of course, this is due to relatively low wages, lack of administrative support, being treated as a less-than-expert profession, ridiculous accountability measures and more — but I argue the penultimate reason is lack of purpose. Just as students lack meaning in their classroom assignments, teachers lack meaning in their positions.

Finding my purpose in education was born out of an immense frustration with education itself. After night after night of cramming lesson plans that paired perfectly with standards (and “differentiating” with the latest tech tool), grading 80+ assignments, and becoming increasingly frustrated with students forgetting everything I told them, I began to wonder why I even bothered. I drank more, I was increasingly negative and irate, and I lost much of the drive I entered the profession with.

This wasn’t because I didn’t realize my purpose — I knew that I wanted to help children learn — to inspire and guide them — but my position wasn’t actually doing that. Instead, my purpose was to prepare students for a test that gauged their worth and mine. Everything I was doing was ultimately tied to maintaining a faux sense of control over my situation — reenacting what I was taught and believed was “good teaching” or in other words, great compliance.

Then I went down the rabbit hole.

I looked to my inspirations: Alfie Kohn, Deborah Meier, Jonathan Kozol — and it was confusing. All the research on child development seemed to imply that everything I was doing was bad for kids. Everything that stressed me out was hurting them. This was perplexing — if all of these studies showcased the need for change, and those changes would help both teacher and pupil, why weren’t they being shouted from the rooftops? I was brainwashed by “How do you know students learned today? You need to have a quiz on this.”; “Students need to be prepared for the job. They’ll need to do things they don’t like to do.”; “If students don’t earn a grade, they won’t even try. Look at them now!”

I decided to take the plunge — I walked in the next day, threw out my lesson plan, and surveyed my students for what they wanted to do. We wrote it all down together. We developed the lessons and projects. They were motivated and I finally felt connected to the classroom experience which I dreamed of. In fact, every single struggle that I assumed would occur: lack of motivation, things falling apart — never happened. The quickest concept to disintegrate was the outdated system I used.

From there, I experimented with every progressive idea I could find — we began to submit work to portfolios, self-assigning a grade (eventually, just throwing out grades altogether); we took breaks and cared about our mental health; we reached out to the community and developed authentic work. In each endeavor, I felt more alive and less stressed — not only did each of these practices revitalize students, they were easier to do. No longer did I have to spend all my time at home thinking about planning and grading. I did not have to execute a perfect lesson plan and stay on top of time management — angered at any distraction (such as an interesting question to drive us “off track”). Now, I spent almost 100% of my time at home relaxed and content, maybe contacting an expert or reaching out on social media for guidance. At school, I was more engaged —expelling all my energy to work and listen, rather than discipline and coerce.

With more free time, I started to do what I loved outside of school again: music, writing, gaming, coding, reading — and it made me a better educator. I could connect with students as a person. I wasn’t a robot who only had one interest or objective — I am a complete human being with passions, loves, faults, and challenges. And now, I could communicate that. I could relate to students better, and I was happy. Not to mention, I could share and connect my loves to student projects — developing deep, meaningful work.

At the top of the Human Restoration Project Twitter page, I placed the banner “Discover Your Purpose.” But the more apt directive would be “Rediscover Your Purpose.” Anyone reading this cares about kids. We went into this profession because we wanted to inspire the next generation — and they depend on us to do so. Taking the risk of rekindling that lost spirit of education is worth it to yourself just as much as it is to them.

Here are some examples from my practice:


Students no longer receive a grade. They automatically pass. In an era where failing a course could have massive negative life implications, I could no longer justify even a simple pass/fail mentality. At school, we have frequent assessments and I spend the majority of my time in 1:1 or small group conversations to help students understand concepts.

Much of our work is devoted to critically analyzing topics and discussing them, and students have higher grades than ever before (as I still keep track on the back-end, that are never reported.) Students have increased motivation, potentially due to the lack of any weight on their shoulders, they’re more willing to take risks, or because I spend so much more time checking in with them. A grade is no longer a substitute for great feedback.

When I go home, I rarely spend anytime thinking about grades.

Restorative Justice

I rarely report anything to the office anymore. Discipline problems, in general, don’t happen because the majority of my problems were due to students not complying with what I wanted them to do. Obviously, if you do what interests them, students rarely act out — and if they do, you now know there’s something much deeper at hand. I’ve been able to establish deep relationships and get children the help they need because I now care about their learning rather than what I want them to do. Nothing is more empowering or meaningful to me than diagnosing and dealing with significant problems beyond the classroom for my students.

Student Choice

When I first started teaching, I assumed I was a master of student choice. Whenever I gave an assignment, there was a list of at least three pathways, each with a different means of expression (“Draw this!”; “Make a PowerPoint!”; “Take a written exam.”) However, real choice was the moment where I literally let students do almost whatever they wanted. On paper, this sounds like an insane suggestion: won’t kids go crazy!? In reality, when I told students, “Here’s what I think would be cool today, but feel free to opt out and do something. I’d prefer if it had something to do with ‘x.’” 99% of the time, they would agree to do what I asked.

I must note, I allow for choice not because it makes compliance easier — but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t. Kids want freedom. If you treat them like young learners and present information that’s relevant, interesting, and optional, they almost always surround you. And if on that day they’re not interested and do something else, they likely wouldn’t have listened regardless.

In addition, although I don’t necessarily care about this outcome, it’s worth stating that my test scores went up. Because we tackled more complex situations and I cared more about individual learners, I’d guess that many were more comfortable within the logical analysis rows of tests — even though we covered half as much content. Administration seemed to care a lot less about my “radical” ideas after seeing the results.

Through all of this, I felt initially I was doing something wrong — after all, much of this seems counter-intuitive: students doing more without being held accountable by grades; letting students choose to learn makes them more prone to learning and less likely to act out. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. As I mentioned before, research is on the side of progressive education. Real learning outcomes: motivation, inspiration, and curiosity — are shown time after time to be driven by these practices. We trust science is almost every endeavor, it seems odd that we wouldn’t think the scientific outcomes are realistic.

All that said — find your support network. Have them coach you through this process.Rediscover your inspirations and passions for learning. Spend time with your family and friends again. Rekindle who you were before education started to steal your soul. It’s time to be a great educator.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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