“Why?” Can Make Change Possible


As principals, we’re not afraid to ask a lot of questions when we don’t know how to do something. But what happens to the questions when we discover how to do it? They stop, don’t they? If we think we already know the right way to do something, or worse, it’s the way we’ve always done it, how open are we to learning a better way or even a different way? We aren’t, are we?

Think about the educators in your building. Do you have a “why” guy or gal? I’m not talking about the much dreaded “why”-ner whose questions often lead to – Why is this more work for me? I’m talking about that relentless teacher who consistently questions your educational philosophy, ideas, methods, programs, guidelines, and expectations by simply asking the relevant question, “Why?” How is this courageous teacher perceived by others? Does annoying, obnoxious, or a nuisance come to mind? A better question may be, how do you as the leader treat this change maker?

As principals, it’s time we embrace the “why” guy or gal. Every day, this teacher is asking “why?” and if you’re on a quest to lead a progressive school, you should keep asking it, too. Just as important as answering it for yourself is answering it for those you lead. It’s important to show your teachers the reasons you do what you do. In fact, I believe if you ever want to have any influence among your teachers, answering “why” is the most critical question you’ll ever address.

I truly believe as principals, it’s our responsibility to build a strong partnership with the “why” guy or gal to challenge our assumptions about what we actually think we know. It’s normal to find ourselves having a superficial understanding rather than the deep understanding we originally thought we had. This is the advantage of such a partnership. These teachers are constantly pointing us in the right direction. Beware, avoiding their questions can prevent learning and change. However, embracing their questions can make change possible.


  1. Marsha Ratzel said:

    I’m probably the why gal at my school. Mostly I ask questions because I want to understand….sometimes because the idea is lame and suggesting alternatives or pointing out problems is perceived to be unteamlike. I know it can also be a timing thing….where there are better places and times to ask and times to dummy-up.

    Here’s the other thing I think about question askers….is it what they do no matter where or who they are talking with? I know my mom says that she almost died from all the questions I asked from when I was 2 until I was 3. I also remember that Peter Senge explains that person who raises the objections actually helps the project anticipate unspoken objections and points out flaws that you might have missed. He called it embracing the voice of dissent.

    Being the why gal is also why I read as much as I can, learning from all different perspectives. Why? Because I’m just interested in this teaching stuff. I have an insatiable curiosity. If it’s their nature, then don’t take it personally. I think your idea of trying to be more open is a good one and won’t go unnoticed.

    March 16, 2012
  2. Kim Nelson said:

    I totally agree! We just added a new school board member and I have met with her and encouraged her to be the WHY gal! I told her that if we cannot answer it, then why are we doing it?! Asking ourselves ‘why’ puts us in check–brings us back to our roots, our purpose. Thanks for reminding us that we need to continue to do that!

    March 16, 2012
  3. This is an important issue, Sean, because all too often, us why guys are shot down. We’re painted as resisters. We’re demonized. We’re perceived as threats.

    And that makes me super flipping angry simply because most of the time, why guys are just as passionate about seeing schools improve as anyone else in the building. The questions that we ask are just evidence of our interest. We’re thinking critically and ready to offer suggestions and advice when others are ready to wait out the mistakes that their school leaders are about to make.

    What’s funny to me is listening to #edleaders talk about the importance of relevance and relationships when they describe the work that teachers should do with students while ignoring relevance and relationships in the work that they do with faculty members.

    Why guys are members of the relevance crowd. They need to see the connections between new ideas and the work that you’re already doing. That doesn’t make them villains. It makes them valuable critical friends.

    Can you tell that this is an issue near and dear to my heart?!

    March 16, 2012
  4. sblankenship said:

    Marsha, thank you for commenting and sharing Peter Senge’s phrase, “embracing the voice of dissent.” What a great phrase. Continue to read challenging articles and books that will require you to think differently and challenge your original perspective. It’s fun to learn a new way or even a better way and being open to change.

    Kim, I think you just summed it up, “if we cannot answer it, then why are we doing it?” Well said! All teachers, especially the “why” guys and gals, need meaningful responses to their questions. As principals, it’s ok to not know the answer as long as you are willing to find the answer. Partner with the “why” guys and gals and the places you may take your school and more importantly, your students, will be off the charts!

    March 17, 2012
  5. Bill, thanks for your comment! You are absolutely correct. It is crucial as leaders that we embrace and treat the “why” guys as valuable, critical friends. Critical may be the best word simply because we are talking about the difference between collaborative progress or stand alone failure. I believe leadership is a team performance, not a solo act. The key players within a team are not the one’s who think they know, but instead the one who asks, “How do you know? followed by “Why?”

    Thank you for inspiring me to write this simple but important post. You recently tweeted, “Any principal who embraces the Why Guy is one I’d want to work for!” I’m ready for you to come work alongside me, but for now, you will remain my connected “why” guy! Thanks again for sharing your thoughts Bill.

    March 17, 2012
  6. As a “why” gal, I so appreciate this post. From my earliest days, I knew that understanding the rationale of a task or endeavor made all the difference when it came to my level of collaboration and effort. “Just tell me why,” I would ask or think. I don’t like wasting time, so if I understand the rationale well, I can make effective use of my work and effort to reach a job well done. As a classroom teacher, I am sensitive to my “why” guys, and will even be more sensitive after this post. Too often the “why guy” is considered the “wise guy” without a positive connotation.

    March 20, 2012
  7. Maureen, thank you so much for taking the time to comment and I am excited that this post resonated with you. I love how you related this idea to your students. I agree that many teachers view students who ask “why?” as troublemakers simply because they are wanting a deeper understanding. There is a great quote that states something to the effect, “Those who know how, will always have a job. Those who know why, will be their boss!” I think as teachers, we must keep this in mind and work to produce more “bosses” through developing critical thinking and reasoning skills. If we are “wise,” we will embrace the “why’s!” Thanks again for commenting.

    March 20, 2012
  8. Anthony Mooring, M.Ed said:

    I think the why’er are needed. What is clear to us is not always clear to others. As change Agents is is important to make sure our goals are clear and those that we are asking to be follow them need to have a clear understanding of the direction we asking them to go. Those that ask why tend to have one of the following agendas: Discredit or have clear understanding. When confronted by one agendas being prepared to answer the question only makes the goal clear and the presenter better at delivery…So take on the why’er and become a better agent for the change you want to create.

    June 8, 2012

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