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Anchoring your why

by Dan Dempsey, Program Director (Professional Learning), Future Anything

Dan joined the Future Anything team in April 2024 as Director (Professional Learning) leading our portfolio of practical and inspiring teacher professional development. In his first blog, he shares his perspectives on the importance of ‘anchoring your why’, and on embracing the authentic learner mindset.  

Picture a majestic ship, its sails billowing against the backdrop of a setting sun, gliding gracefully across the open sea. Suddenly, the calm waters turn into a churning cauldron of waves and wind. Then, with a clanking of chains and a splash, an anchor plunges into the depths, seeking the solid seabed. As it bites into the ground below, the ship is held fast, defying the ever-changing tides and powerful currents.

Symbolising stability and purpose, the anchor transforms the chaotic scene into one of steadfast resilience, allowing the crew to ride out the storm in safety. Much like a ship’s anchor holding firm, our anchor points allow us to navigate through turbulent waters and unexpected storms with confidence and clarity, keeping us aligned to our core values.

There may come a time, however, with reflection and self-awareness, where the anchor points are no longer holding us in the right waters. Sometimes, when a new or modified course needs to be chartered, we need to pause, lift and reset the anchor.

Resetting the anchor

In my case, I’ve always been an ambitious person, setting high expectations for myself and working hard. In the past, I’ve anchored success and meaning to aspiration and promotion, to personal achievement and career. Quite early in my journey as an educator, I found myself beginning to take on higher duties and leadership roles, often leading others who were mostly older than me.

For much of my career, I created anchor points that helped me to maintain calm waters for what I thought I wanted as a professional. For a long time, my ship held fast. And yet, recently I began to look back and wonder if my anchor points were always in the right place.

Over the years as a school leader, I have been asked to articulate my ‘why’ many times. Simon Sinek says “When we can connect what we do to who we are, then we are more likely to show up with our whole selves, excited and inspired by what we do.” Simon’s first book, ‘Start with Why’, was a game changer for me.

My response to the question of my ‘why’ was usually linked to such things as providing opportunities for students to be their best, feel safe and succeed in their learning, to see the joy of witnessing a student’s eureka moment and a desire to make a lasting difference in their lives.

And there is no doubt for me that I absolutely believed it…but did I really know what it looked like? Or, did I notice it when it happened?

It’s easy enough to say, but sometimes harder to see.

(Re-)Embracing the learner within

Recently, I have found myself having to embrace being a learner all over again, as well as some feelings of deep vulnerability.

A career shift after 20 years as a teacher and school leader to follow a passion and to place family first will do that to you. Now, as part of my role as Director (Professional Learning) at Future Anything, I support teachers to unpack the skills and capabilities that our young people need for the future, and to explore how we can help students to learn to transfer these skills.

Ultimately, being able to transfer my own skills and experience is exactly what I had to do.

We often throw around the terms ‘lifelong learner’ and ‘risk taker’, but how often do we actually find ourselves truly embracing that ‘newbie’ feeling again?

Good things are on the other side of hard things

I’d be lying if I said I found that easy. In fact, I’ve still got a long way to go. However, one of our mantras at Future Anything is ‘Good things are on the other side of hard things’ and it’s never felt more real for me.

But, I’ve got to tell you, there’s nothing like getting that glimpse of the good when it happens.

In recent times, and specifically through this process of change, I’ve felt my ‘why’ getting clearer. As a result, my anchor points needed to shift. It was time to reset my navigation. And in doing so, I learned that it’s really not about me, it’s about my impact.

And the signs were always there.

When the teacher with big aspirations came to me for coaching and I helped them understand how to influence beyond their own practice and classroom.

When the graduating student and their family broke into tears of appreciation upon goodbye because I’d put in everything I had over the previous year.

When the student who was initially so anxious about coming to school felt so safe they didn’t miss a day.

When the Facebook message from an 18-year-old stranger turned out to be a student I taught in England when they were eight, and they needed to tell me that I was the reason they wanted to be a teacher.

When the messages, cards, and beautiful words of colleagues who valued me felt overwhelming as I moved on from one place and to take on another.

When the quietest young person in the room simply just looked me in the eye and said ‘thank you’.

The signs were always there, but I was often moving too fast to anchor them fully.

Anchoring your why

We’ve all got these stories, in our lives, jobs and industries. These moments that keep us doing what we do.

But, ask yourself…

  • Am I taking the time to anchor my ‘why’? (Read more about the ‘anchor’ concept in this blog)
  • Am I embracing an authentic learner mindset?
  • Am I working through the hard to get a glimpse of the good?
  • Am I stopping to see the moments where my ‘why’ is evidenced in ‘impact’?

The world is changing. Roles are constantly shifting, and your capability might be tested as you pivot and transfer your skills as required. You feel the pressure of time, workplace priorities and system requirements.

And these things will always be there.

But as you manage through the workload, the meetings, the feedback, the endless emails and disruptions, take the time to set and then draw upon your anchor points.

As you give piece after piece of yourself, try to remember the moments when all those pieces will come back to you a thousand-fold.

Make sure you know your ‘why’, but even more importantly, take notice of your ‘influence’.

Is your anchor ready?

As Simon Sinek also says, “Finding why is a process of discovery, not invention”.

For me, I’m working to ensure that my anchor points are matched to the influence that I want to have now.

First and foremost, I strive to be the best father, husband, friend, and colleague that I can be. But close behind, I am driven to extend my influence to students, teachers and schools through professional development that promotes engaging curriculum and pedagogy, as well as through enhancing the ‘enterprising’ capabilities students need in order to bend their future.

And I’m making sure I have my ‘anchor’ ready. Do you?

About the author: Dan Dempsey

Dan Dempsey is a highly experienced educator, forging a successful 20-year career in education and school leadership in both Australia and the United Kingdom, notably through a range of Principal and Deputy Principal roles across varied primary school contexts.

With a passion for building the capacity of schools, teams and systems to embed effective and innovative teaching, learning and assessment, Dan has developed significant experience providing professional learning, coaching and mentoring to teachers and leaders. Dan has a deep understanding of curriculum and pedagogy, with experience implementing and leading STEM initiatives, Project-Based Learning, inquiry and design thinking.

At Future Anything, Dan uses his extensive experience to provide targeted and bespoke support to empower schools, as well as facilitate the suite of teacher professional development programs, with the aim of providing educators the knowledge and skills to embed future-focussed learning experiences.

Future Anything’s engaging and practical teacher professional development workshops unpack the ‘what’ and, more importantly, the ‘how’ of an innovative and future-focussed approach to teaching and learning.

Find out more about our teacher professional development programs here.

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