P.S. How Purpose & Singapore Can Increase Teacher Retention

In my weekly news email from LinkedIn, the January 1st subject read, “Teachers quitting in record numbers.”  As someone who desires to be a lifelong educator but recently decided to step out of the classroom, I found myself both relating with the teachers’ perspectives and feeling discouraged with the circumstances.

A quick Google image search of “education quotes” brings up a never ending scroll of serene images and inspirational messages from Maya Angelou to Malcolm X to Nelson Mandela to Ghandi and numerous U.S. Presidents, all conveying a similar idea: Knowledge is power and education is the key to economic success and prosperity. Yet, according to the Wall Street Journal, educators are resigning at the highest rate on record, and out of 71 countries that participated in the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the United States ranked 24th in science, 24th in reading, and 38th in math (The PISA is conducted every three years and the 2018 data has a tentative release date of December 2019). We say education is the key to success and prosperity, so we would expect education to be a top to priority. However, teachers are quitting and test scores are hardly showing us ahead of the pack. So, where is the disconnect and what do we do about it?

It comes down to a P.S.: Purpose & Singapore.

knowledge is power and education is the key to economic success and prosperity. yet, according to the wall street journal educators are resigning at the highest rate on record


In his book, The Invisible Leader, Zach Mercurio explicitly names purpose as the game-changing element for schools and companies to invest and develop their employees.

“…what I’ve heard is clear: People are longing for purpose more than ever in school, work, and life. And I’ve also uncovered critical tensions. While human beings are wired for purpose (or why), our systems and institutions continue to be motivated by and obsessed with results (or what).

For instance: While we know that people generally want to contribute some greater good in society and have a natural desire for meaningful work, we still overwhelmingly measure them by quotas and targets…

…Unilever is a good example. Its brands with clearly communicated societal purposes – household names like Comfort, Dove, and Ben & Jerry’s – are growing faster than the rest of the company’s portfolio. In an article I recently cowrote with colleagues from the social enterprise Gone Adventurin, Unilever CEO Paul Polman said, ‘Our sustainable-living brands are growing 30 percent faster than the rest of our business and delivered nearly half of our total growth in 2015.’

Because purpose emotionally compels us, people are more likely to buy a product connected to a social movement. Dove changed nothing about its soap when it sought to respond to the societal pressures on women regarding body image; instead, it sharply defined its overarching purpose as ‘helping women feel better about their bodies.’ Because Dove stated a purpose that was more important than itself, it inspired employees and consumers to join the movement. The result was a $1.5 billion increase in sales in a decade. The soap is the same, but its story and narrative transformed.”

We must take the lessons learned from these organizations and apply them to our schools and educators. We have become so obsessed with results (and for a reason that would appear to make sense given the data at the start of this post), that we have lost sight of the purpose behind education, which is ultimately costing us the results we seek. This does not mean that assessments should be thrown to the wind and disregarded, but before we go rushing into test-prep mode, it is imperative for us to consider the purpose of assessments and gathering data. When we ground all that we do as educators in our purpose for educating, the results will follow – it’s been proven time and again. Exercises and concrete action steps for practicing purpose can be found in Zach’s book, as well as on his website, www.purposespeaks.com.we have become so obsessed with results . . ., that we have lost sight of the purpose behind education, which is ultimately costing us the results we seek.


One glance at the 2015 PISA data and I immediately thought, “What is Singapore doing and how are we learning from them?”

Will Minton, the Founder and Executive Director of CanopyEd, and his wife Elizabeth spent time in Singapore working to answer this very question. The couple spent a year traveling across four continents searching for what excellent schools have in common. To define excellent, they used a matrix (from the 2012 PISA data) that charted student academic achievement with student happiness. Singapore is in the upper right quadrant: high achievement, high happiness.

I was lucky enough to speak with Will upon their return stateside and hear about their research. Two things stood out to me in our conversation about Singapore.


Their education system is values-based. Teachers spend time determining their values and teaching philosophy and are encouraged to share that with their students and live by that in their classroom. “The emphasis on values and reflection is also part of an understanding that curriculums and techniques will change throughout a career, but if they know who they are as teachers, and have habits for reflective practice, they’ll be able to adapt,” Will recounted. (Hello Purpose!)


Planning and responding to data is the “job” of teaching. Will said to me, “The principal told me that, on average, teachers spend 2-3 hours in front of students teaching and the remaining 5-6 hours analyzing data, grading (having more time for grading means they can give more in-depth assessments), collaborating with other teachers, researching pedagogy, conducting peer classroom observations, and engaging with families. I told her that in the U.S. that time allocation is flipped. In most schools teachers spend around 5-6 hours in front of students with 1-2 hours of planning. She looked at me and asked, ‘When do they have time to do their job? Can you imagine, in any other profession, being asked to present multiple hours a day? You must have time to ensure your presentation is excellent.”

Read more about their travel and research here.

We say knowledge is power and education is the key to success and prosperity. Let’s put this belief into action by applying lessons learned from Purpose and Singapore and begin taking steps toward keeping excellent educators in our schools, having happier students in our classrooms, and achieving greater academic results across our nation.

meghan thompsonGuest blog author Meghan Thompson joined Teach For America in 2008 and began her career in education as a 9th-12th Special Education Teacher in Charlotte, NC. In 2010, she was a member of the founding team at Henderson Collegiate (a school that has ranked in the top 3.5% of all NC public schools for the past 4 years). In 2014, she was a member of the founding team at Democracy Prep Baton Rouge and throughout her time at DPBR served as a middle school ELA teacher, middle school math teacher and the Middle School Campus Director.

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