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How Did You Get Here?: A GPS for Teachers

By Wendi Pillars — September 03, 2014 6 min read
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The Gullah-speaking people of coastal Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina have a famed traditional saying: Ef oona ent kno weh oona da gwuine, oona should kno weh oona kum from. “If you don’t know where you are going, you should know where you come from.”

In the cultural and historical sense, I love that saying. To make it suit the teaching world, I would flip that around&and emphasize that knowing where you are is essential to knowing where you are going.

But that means more than designing the perfect lesson plan or determining precise learning objectives. Knowing where you are going also requires paying attention to the myriad landmarks along the way.

I like the GPS in my car, and I admit it’s gotten me to many a destination in record time. I’ve noticed, though, that my journey often becomes overshadowed by my singular focus on the destination. My attention to landmarks and attentiveness has dissolved, which means that in unfamiliar territory—without my GPS—I’m lost. Rather than appreciate the adventure, my single-mindedness leads me to frustration. And that’s not a place I want to be.

Twitter co-founder Biz Stone likes to ask, “Do you like where you are? Do you like the end point? Is changing things a matter of replotting your final destination, or are you on the wrong map altogether?” As educators, rather than focus on what has seemingly become a mere one-shot performance assessment in our classrooms, let’s rethink our journeys and replot our destinations using another type of GPS: Gratitude, Passion, and Sharing.

Recently, some random reminders have hammered home the value of these ideas for me and made me preflect (reflect in advance) on my upcoming school year. Here’s how.


I recently savored a well-timed and encouraging read by Austin Kleon: Show Your Work. Kleon uses a great quote from Michael Lewis: “Above all, recognize that if you have had success, you have also had luck—and with luck comes obligation. You owe a debt, and not just to your gods. You owe a debt to the unlucky.” Indeed, we owe a debt to those who have helped us. But we must also honor them—whether or not they realize they have helped us.

How many times in a single day do you receive help? Who feeds your students so they are alert and nourished during your class? Who brought them to school? Who smiled and said good morning to you to start your day? Who encouraged you? Who helped you with a resource or technical issue? Who shared an interesting link? How many had a hand in creating the books, computers, and furniture that you use each day? Who passed along the knowledge you will use today?

Another interesting idea related to gratitude comes from musician Brian Eno’s “Scenius,” also referenced by Kleon. A Scenius comprises an ecology of talent. Rather than diminish the work of an individual, it acknowledges that great work doesn’t occur in a vacuum—it results from connections to others and their thinking. In essence, it is “the communal form of the concept of the genius.” Kleon argues that the most valuable part of a scenius is what people share—ideas, conversations, connections, and even ways of helping others. Imagine the possibilities if you approached your PLC with the question, “How can I help you?”

Pay it forward, be kind, help others, and respond with gratitude. Whichever mantra reminds you to do so, be intentionally grateful for all who have helped and continue to help craft your path. Be explicitly thankful in a “thankful out loud” kind of way. I dare you to do this every single day (warning: it’ll change your life).


Gratitude intertwines with passion, especially since our work is driven by intangibles. Teachers persist via this passion, with an optimism that they can reach their students in the face of mandate after mandate, salary raises wrapped in math trickery, dwindling support, fewer resources, and public diminution of our ever-expanding roles.

Passion plays out in full force, both consciously and not. I beg each of you to take your eyes off the destination to better see the personal landmarks surrounding and already guiding you. Think of those who desire nothing more than to empower kids and colleagues to take control of their learning and leadership. Or those who give selflessly of their time to represent the teaching profession in such honest, humane, and accessible ways for policymakers, legislators, parents, and the community. Those who extend their passionate teaching and devout caring for students’ learning far beyond the classroom walls. The veteran teachers whose hard-earned wisdom and drive to educate is nothing short of inspiring. And there are so many others.

Since I began looking, and paying attention, my list of personal landmarks has grown exponentially, highlighting an overwhelming presence of passionate educators. “Why don’t you do something better with your talent/knowledge/degree (etc.)?” has been the question du jour from well-meaning friends and family for the better part of my career. With the increasingly lopsided ratio of time invested to actual salary, I understand the inquiry.

My answer: The kids, and a driving passion to serve them well.

Struggling learners. Misfits. Honors students. Middle-of-the-pack kids. Language learners. Special-needs kids. Quite simply—and simultaneously, complexly—the kids. I don’t need to say more.


Bill Ferriter, another colleague whose writing and thinking I admire, posted a reminder about the nature of helping others. He advised readers to give back twice as much as we take. To respect those we glean information from, those we work with, and those who nurture our own inspiration. Then do it all over again tomorrow.

He encouraged teachers to reflect on how we use our connections and the information they provide. Do we take it and run, like GPS directions, intent on a destination? Or do we consider how those bits and pieces of information create the twists and turns of a more interactive journey? And how often do we make our appreciation explicit for those who help us each step of the way? His reminder is, in the words of Renee Moore: “a well-deserved criticism… the things that help us build relationships are also the things that help us learn the most and advance our society.” Again, this whole “successful teaching thing” boils down to relationships, and it behooves us to be attentive to the journey and the guides.

Kleon’s book implores folks to show your work and share it. In Singapore, they advocate giving away all your best ideas because doing so will make you think harder and come up with even better ideas. As teachers, we’ve been given conflicting messages lately, particularly in light of value-added measures. Why should we share what we have worked so hard to craft when someone else might get the credit? Not a simple question. But the answer is somewhat simpler, if counterintuitive: share. Think and act in the vein of abundance.

Biz Stone says, “Success isn’t guaranteed, but failure is certain if you aren’t truly emotionally invested in your work.” Teachers emotionally invested? Check. We need to think in abundance each and every day. We need to share and acknowledge how many have shared with us. We know in our hearts that this “teaching thing,” not to mention our students’ learning, are worth pursuing—but it’s an ultimately unsustainable journey if we go it alone. Discover your Scenius, and pay attention.

The letters of GPS naturally and intricately intertwine, and rightfully so. This kind of GPS works best when there is conscious intent. It doesn’t matter how many minutes you shave off your ETA when you’re savoring the journey with Gratitude, Passion, and Sharing. Chances are, you’ll make it a whole lot further than you’d originally mapped out. So rather than praise your GPS for getting you to your destination, remember to praise those who drive and have driven you.


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