Why a Personal Passion Can Serve a Greater Purpose for Educators

Insights   10 November 2021
By Emily Liebtag, Education Reimagined

What are you passionate about?

I mean like really engrossed in learning about or obsessing over right now? I’m not just talking about a casual hobby. I mean something you set Google alerts for and spend any spare moment you have exploring. If you’ve spoken to me in the last couple of years, you’d likely know that for me, that obsession is plants. 

How do plants interact with one another? 

What is an ideal soil pH for the types of plants I want to grow? 

How can I grow my own food and reduce my expenses?

How will I know whether I’m doing too much or too little of one thing or another to take care of my plants? 

If you are thinking, I’m not sure I can read much more about plants, I understand, but stick with me. Because learner-centered education thrives and grows stronger where passion abounds. 

And, to know what that feels like for yourself, to have a learner-centered experience as an adult (as I have had with plants), I’d argue is one of the most powerful gateways to enabling that experience for young people. Having experienced what it feels like to have an insatiable appetite and curiosity for the world enables so much more than one might think.  

In my case, my newfound passion taps into my creative side and my appreciation for beauty and design. I am learning about soil science and regenerative agriculture. I’m failing (and often). Learning from my trials, I patiently craft new plans for the following season, hoping to reap the benefits of what I (literally) sow. I also have read and learned more about worms than I ever thought a person would need to know. 

My passion for plants has opened up new ways for me to integrate and apply my knowledge. I don’t think I ever finished an online course in my life, and now, I find myself seeking (and yes, completing) courses that help me grow my understanding—from bees to butterflies, to beautyberry bushes, my agency is off the charts. I have such a strong desire and capacity to take initiative to continue my learning and truly for no reason other than my own curiosity and desire. 

I’ve connected with the local Agricultural Extension and sought out mentors to help me figure out what in the world I am doing and how to incorporate more native plants to support the local wildlife. There are endless ways in which I’m extending and growing my own competencies. I have new dreams and goals, one of which is to own my own cut flower business and to help young people experience how working with the land can be incredibly healing. I have found a way in which I can, and want to, contribute to my community.


Educating young people should be about knowing their passions and interests—student motivation is key to engagement.

Tony Simmons
Founder and Principal of High School for the Recording Arts

Passion in Learner-Centered Education

Passion and finding your purpose (through which you want to apply those passions) is core to learner-centered education and is incredibly important for young people. As Tony Simmons, Founder and Principal of High School for Recording Arts (HSRA), shares: 

“Educating young people should be about knowing their passions and interests—student motivation is key to engagement.” 

Places like HSRA elevate passion to the front and center, never seeing it as an afterthought. Learners are encouraged to become active discoverers of their passions and to use them as a vehicle to explore other content, connections, and their communities. As stated in A Transformational Vision for Education, education ought to “support each and every child to discover their gifts, passions, and talents and to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life.”

And, if learners aren’t yet sure of what they are interested in, their learning experiences ought to help them explore and inquire into new topics and ideas. Mentors and advisors work with learners to connect them with opportunities that either deepen their existing passions or reveal new pathways they can explore, regardless of whether each new idea or interest becomes a lifelong pursuit. 

Joseph South (ISTE) has been shedding light on how important passion and purpose are and shared during his 2021 Aurora Institute Symposium presentation, “We know purpose is an extremely powerful force, but schools almost never ask students what their purpose is and that’s something we want to change.” 

In Difference Making, which I co-authored with Tom Vander Ark of Getting Smart, we wrote about the need for a shift in our priorities, “At the heart of this new priority set is helping young people find their purpose, so that their work is aligned directly to who they want to be and how they uniquely choose they want to contribute.” Learners need the space to explore what they might care about in their lives and their communities. Whether it be solutions to help offset carbon or feeding stray animals or starting their own skateboard business, it provides them a relevant and contextualized experience. 

Each new passion a learner explores helps to reveal more layers and contours, adding not just to their toolbox of competencies but also their understanding of themselves. Having the time to explore your passion and find purpose might seem like a privilege. However, in learner-centered environments, exploring what you care about isn’t reserved for the lucky few—it’s the status quo for all.  Passions fuel insatiable curiosity and learning, often allowing learners to access such skills as reading or math, in ways they haven’t been able to before. It gives them reason to build those skills and others because without them, they can’t go as deep or as far into their passion as they want. Passion ought to precede the Pythagorean theorem. And, in thriving learner-centered environments, it does. However, we often focus so much on the experiences of young people that we forget about ourselves.


In learner-centered environments, exploring what you care about isn’t reserved for the lucky few—it’s the status quo for all.

Emily Liebtag
Senior Partner for Systems Transformation

Prioritizing Our Own Passions

When was the last time you felt that deep sense of passion and purpose, agency, growth, and pure joy? When have you given yourself permission to have a passion? What are you already curious about or what is something you’ve always wanted to explore? 

How might you share this with learners and those around you? How might you “walk the talk” of honoring and delving into passion?

By making your passions and purpose a priority and visible, learners will not only see the difference it can make but will also see what pursuit of it can look like. They’ll gravitate towards the pursuit of finding their own (if they haven’t already). Learner-centered leaders across the country have seen this to be true.

At Iowa BIG, passion permeates everything. On their Meet the Team page, the word “passion” appears fourteen times. Their vision is to “unleash human potential,” and that includes the adults. This isn’t your average, “Meet the Teacher” during a back-to-school night exercise. It’s a part of their DNA. 

Dena Simmons, Founder of LiberatED, recently tweeted, “Educator fam, what y’all doing for JOY in the midst of so much stress & anxiety? I’ve been cooking. How do you plan to find joy today? Let’s inspire each other by sharing our joy practices. If you don’t feel joy, that’s OK. Feel your feels & make time to heal.”

Don’t just take it from me. If we look to the research, we find connecting with a passion helps us in most aspects of life, often leading people to feel more engaged, happier, and healthier. And, as the research also tells us, taking care of ourselves matters, and honoring our own interests, curiosities, and passions can contribute to that. It will change how you show up for the young people and community you’re working with. Your passion precedes you. 

If you’d asked me fifteen years ago when I started my journey as an educator, I’d disagree with this idea and show you my scope and sequence, which solidly started with someone else’s agenda—no passion in sight. I’d likely defend how I’d work passion into my centers, providing choice and opportunity for learners to “discover” (amongst five pre-set choice books, of course).

As for my own passions, I would’ve told you that time was a luxury. How, as a full-time educator, do I have time for finding my passions?  

But as I see it now, if you can do anything, prioritize passion. Even if only for ten minutes a day. Find your plants. 

Call me a reductionist or too simple, but in some small way, by doing so you are a part of helping to co-create a new future of education where who we are and what we care about matters, more than how we perform. 

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