Discovering Your “Why”

Tim StephensonBlog, Lesson Plan Better, Reflect Better


  • Teachers provide more value when they stay up to date on current events around our country and world.
  • We should model for our students what it means to be a lifelong learner.
  • As a teacher, it is important to know your why.

Finding your why is a necessary part of your teaching career. My journey to finding my why begins with my 1997 thoughts on being a teacher:

“…it’s not a job that can be walked away from.  Teaching is more than a position to be filled.  It’s a way of life, it’s an effort to connect with young people, to give them motivation to do the best they can.  Teaching is getting the students to develop an interest in the course and making it relevant to their lives.  It’s a responsibility that can’t be shaken nor should you want to shake it.” 

Discovering your why: inspiration comes unannounced.

One of the lessons that Ive learned as I look back over my career is that you don’t wait until a moment in time comes when you think you’ll be ready.  Inspiration comes unannounced and it doesn’t consider your age or experience. 

I once had a pastor in my life who I thought was quite wise and eloquent in his speech, so I asked him if he would like to collaborate on that book I was writing. (I mentioned the book I wrote in the 90s at the beginning of my career in last month’s blog.)

He responded by saying no because he hadn’t turned 40 yet.  That was what he considered the magic age when wisdom would be accessible.  I didn’t agree then with that philosophy and still don’t today. 

Mozart started to compose at the age of 5.  Beethoven was 12.  Shakespeare was 25 and writing his first play.  Neil Armstrong was 38 when he went to the Moon and he had already been to space once before that! 

Your why is your starting point.

Age is an indication of the number of times you’ve orbited the Sun, not necessarily a gateway to inspiration.

The concept of starting with the why is integral to a successful teaching career.  Starting with your why is where I would direct all teachers as they begin their career. And it’s where I could direct teachers at any stage of their career if it’s fallen out of focus. 

What is YOUR why? Why did we become teachers? 

Is your why that you love to teach math or science?  Not likely. 

I think you would find that most teachers will say that they really enjoy helping others meet their potential.  We aren’t naturally business minded.  There is an altruistic nature to our mentality whereby helping others is what we get the most joy from. 

I truly believe that it’s the teacher that sets the tone. As much as we want motivation to be intrinsic, what can really help bring a student to that point is the teacher being the best student in the classroom. Click To Tweet

If it were profit or sales that drives us, we are in the wrong profession.  We accept that we all get paid the same, whether we teach science, tech, physical education, or English. We can’t collect overtime, we don’t get paid per student, and we willingly accept extra work without extra pay.  No businessperson in their right mind would do what we do.  It really is a mentality that a teacher is likely born with. 

Early in my career, I used the writing process to figure out my why

Here’s what I wrote back then:

“…the most important thing that I can do in the position that I find myself, is to bring a message of hope to young people for their futures.  To paint for them a picture of their futures and what could become of them.  To offer a word and a thought that would encourage them to stay the course, to reach further, to reflect on their own personal talents and abilities, to make them see the potential that I see…It would be a waste of my time if I were not able to see a reason for working in the lives of these people but just like the farmer who, every spring holds a picture in his mind of the harvest, I hold a picture in my mind of each student’s possibilities.” 

Use current events to reflect.

I wrote that when I was in the middle of a total immersion in growth mindset trainingEverywhere I drove, I would listen to motivational speakers to try to tap into the power of the mind. The car can be a powerful classroom.  I wish that it would be that way for everyone! 

There are so many podcasts today. So many excellent speakers on such a variety of topics, that there is just no excuse to be unaware of world events, philosophies of religion, the climate crisis, or world politics.  Even more so if one is a teacher.   

For example, a couple of years ago, Hurricanes Maria, Irma, and Harvey were dominating the Atlantic. Two of them made landfall on continental USA. Questions about the implications that students should be aware of dominated my thoughts.  Why such aggressive storms? Where was that energy coming from?  What made them different from other storms? 

For days, I listened to and read about the science behind these storms and the conditions that caused them.  I felt compelled to be the “teacher” for my students to help them understand our changing climate.  The same held in 2019 when so much was being shared online about the fires in the Amazon.  These world events highlight why we have teachers in the world. 

It is our job to be informed and to shed some commentary to our students. 

We have to be informed, and to do so requires that we listen to and read from the experts.  If this isn’t happening, then teachers walk into the classroom prepared only to do the same thing that they’ve always done.

Have you ever noticed that the world is your lesson plan?  You just need to be observant. 

In my classroom, even though I may be teaching grade 9 science year after year, no two years are ever fully alike.  How can they be as each year brings new and fascinating issues to discuss in class?

New world events bring new lessons.

One year it may be a volcano erupting and that brings lessons in geography, plate tectonics, history, culture, and economic impact.  Another year there may be a discovery on Mars which brings lessons of the solar system, rocketry, life, and living conditions beyond Earth, physics of motion, and orbits. 

Whatever dominates the news has to become an inquiry lesson, otherwise we continue to be that 20th century teacher preparing our students for our past, not their future! 

I have found today great podcasts by some very insightful people.  There is nothing I can’t learn about space when I listen to Startalk Radio with Neil Degrasse Tyson.  There is not a topic of science, politics, or philosophy that podcast hosts like Joe Rogan and Russell Brand don’t cover.  World class authors like Noah Yuval Hurari or Malcolm Gladwell are being interviewed.  Experts like Michael Mann and Katherine Hayhoe are discussing the climate.  Deep thinkers like Brian Cox and Roger Penrose ruminate on the Cosmos. 

These are fascinating people, and the knowledge is just there for the taking.

Think about it!  If I don’t listen to these people, then the last time I learned something new was in my senior year of university.  And that’s getting further away in the rearview mirror. 

If I can’t profess to my classes who my teachers currently are, then what business do I have claiming to be a teacher?! I can’t go into a class and teach the content that I learned 30 years ago! 

To be an excellent teacher, you must be a student yourself. 

To me, this is nothing new.  Here is what I wrote in 1997: 

“This is the very reason why we read books and listen to commentaries (today we call them podcasts).  This is a point that every young person needs to hear and understand, that powerful, new insights can be had on any and every topic imaginable… Young people (teachers too) need to be reading, watching the news, gaining insight into the world, growing, expanding their horizons.  Gaining the advantage of those that have gone before them and learning from other people’s savvy, developed over a lifetime.  My life became so much richer when I realized this point and opened myself up to the men and women who can teach us so much.  No one can reach their potential until they understand this point and it will become more evident…that gleaning from others and developing a partnership with the knowledge that is available is vital to every young person’s development.  The task of growing and changing and becoming what we are capable of is not one that must be taken alone but is simplified and magnified when we are willing to listen and learn, assimilate and sort through the efforts of those that have gone before us.

When I wrote this, my focus was on the student as the one who needed to be encouraged to do things like reading and watching. 

This continues to be true today, but now I feel I have learned that for this to happen, it has become as much the responsibility of the teacher. And perhaps more so, to lead in this way by example. 

After more than 25 years of teaching thousands of students, I truly believe that it’s the teacher that sets the tone. As much as we want motivation to be intrinsic, what can really help bring a student to that point is the teacher being the best student in the classroom

If teachers are learning, passionate, excited to teach, and recognize that they are first and foremost a learner themselves, then school becomes an interesting place with dynamic lessons. And it becomes a place of discovery and intrigue, and where valuable knowledge is shared. 

A final reflection on finding your why.

I’ll wrap up with one more quote from my younger self.  On school, I wrote: 

“Think about the impact school has on our lives. It’s the first question asked of your kids when they meet someone…”so what school do you go to?”.  It may be something a person hates but it also brings with it a sense of pride, belonging and friendship.  School will forever be the molder of memories for the first 17 or 18 years in a person’s life.  Going to school represents so much of those early years of life that a person’s entire future could be altered, depending on the experience they had at school. 

People write books about going to school, there are movies about it, television shows, talk shows discuss it, songs are written about it.  There are grad weekends, convocations and 10-year reunions.  Family holidays are planned around school vacations.  Even the vandals are attracted to the schools. 

There is something about schools in our society that makes them unique among all other public institutions.  Schools are such a huge part of our lives and we must be careful not to let them be taken for granted.  It is so often the case that the things that offer the greatest comfort zone are the first to be taken for granted.  Our spouses, our jobs, our cars, even the food we eat goes through times when they are given low priority.   It seems that the commonality of school in our society is the very thing that masks its influential nature.  So, it is our job to peel back the layers of familiarity and re-introduce our kids to school.” 

The journey has begun.  I hope the thesis is clear: to teach, you must know your why. Discovering YOUR why can unlock so many other possibilities.  

About Tim Stephenson

Tim has been teaching in Langley British Columbia for over 25 years. He is a science teacher, particularly astronomy, which is a course he has developed into a full credit senior science course. In his school, he is known as AstroStephenson. Way back at the beginning of his teaching career, he wrote a book, really to himself, that contained his teaching philosophy. It was a project that would define his career. He is a possibility thinker, a dreamer and a doer, an innovator.

From the very beginning, he knew that he wanted to teach by putting students and relationships ahead of content, and putting experiences and emotions ahead of curriculum. The result has been a long career of rich and rewarding experiences for both himself and his students, the pinnacle being in 2018 when he was the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Now Tim would like to share with you his thoughts and experiences on teaching with the hope that by reflecting better, you will feel empowered to try new things, teach in new ways and see the possibilities that are there for all of us in the teaching profession.