Meaning is Essential In Our Professional Lives

  • Posted on: 19 August 2013
  • By: Tina McCoy

“Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad.” - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Our professional lives have become increasingly complex. Additional requirements, new initiatives, and changes in expectations are the norm rather than exceptions.  With increased demands and information overload, it is easy to be swept away on a sea of frenzied activity. After all, isn’t it our job to move things along; to make things happen?  Maybe so, but in our rush to do more with less time we may lose something very important: meaning. Don’t confuse the ‘call to action’ with a ‘call to activity’!  It is essential that we focus on those things that are most meaningful to our mission, and that we articulate and reinforce that meaning to our constituents.

All the activity in the world cannot take the place of that which speaks to our hearts and minds: that which compels us to ‘get out of bed’ every morning. We need to make sense out of all the new initiatives that we are tasked to promote.  This is essential not only for our own motivation and mental health, but in order for us to become effective leaders within our organizations. When a new requirement is imposed upon us the first questions we should ask ourselves are those like: a.) What does this mean? b.) How will this help us improve our practices? c.) Why does this matter? and d.) How will this benefit our students? Rest assured that if we as educational leaders cannot answer these questions for ourselves, we fail to help teachers, parents or community members to see the importance of the work that is done in our schools.

Without meaning there can be no real leadership.  Leadership is concerned with moving organizations forward, but not by coercion. Managers ‘drive’ others by compelling them to act in certain ways, but true leaders inspire others to follow for the sake of a higher cause.  In the case of educators, the higher cause is service to students.  Regardless of varying opinions and perspectives, the overwhelming majority of educators cares deeply about their students and want to do the best they can to help them succeed. There is something inside educators that is genuine and true – but insufficiently tapped. As leaders, how often to we tap into the hearts and minds of our colleagues by helping them to understand how new initiatives, laws or other requirements will help students? Do we communicate and collaborate with teachers to build consensus regarding the relevance and importance of any organizational undertaking?

Reflect for a moment on a recent staff meeting or any situation where educators came together to discuss tasks and initiatives.  How much time was spent outlining what must be done and how it will be done? How much time was spent discussing the underlying meaning (including relevance, benefits and interconnections with other initiatives) of the things that must be accomplished by the organization? Are your meetings an endless string of glorified ‘honey do’ lists or are they opportunities for colleagues to engage with each other to make sense out of their work and inspire each other to action?  What should they be?

Michael Fullan (The New Meaning of Educational Change, 4th Edition) writes that shared meaning is essential to the process of change.  On many occasions I’ve made the mistake of assuming shared meaning when, in fact, there was none. Is that a mistake that you have made?  We must never assume shared meaning within our organizations, but must work to build, nurture and maintain shared meaning – relentlessly.  Why?  Because without shared meaning, we cannot move concertedly in the same direction and remain fresh and inspired to do more for our students and our communities.  Will any great professional stay motivated to work tirelessly at learning and implementing new strategies or accomplishing new tasks simply because ‘somebody said so’? I think not.

Today, renew your commitment to bring ‘meaning’ back to your educational community through leadership. Don’t devote all of your valuable professional time to the treadmill of tiresome work and endless tasks devoid of articulated meaning. Find the underlying value and meaning of the work that you must do, and share it with others.  Energize your organization by ‘connecting the dots’ for those you work with and engage them in ways that will help meaning grow and spread like wildfire.  After all, there is more than your sanity at stake; there is your entire life’s work.