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Meaningful Work

Written on March 30th, 2016

boy washing dishes

Years ago, I wrote a paper on the amazing educator, Maria Montessori. She was a woman who established schools in the midst of Italian ghettos, where she discovered that young children love to do the same kinds of work as adults. She taught them to clean, to prepare food, to take care of themselves through washing and dressing and to generally contribute to the community. We would say today that she encouraged student agency and student voice.

My mother’s mother was a vibrant, fun-loving, song-singing Oma. When we went to visit her on the family farm, she was always cooking, baking, gardening or cleaning. She was not a woman who sat down much. As her grandchildren, we loved to be with her, and so she always gave us a job. Whether it was weeding, cleaning beans, washing dishes or helping her carry things, she made us feel that we were indispensable to the important work of preparing the meal or helping her with her chores. She embodied Christ by wanting children to be with her and not sending us away because we couldn’t do things the way she wanted them done.

As I near that age of beginning to imagine life without a regular job,and as I talk with many who are retired or retiring, one of the things I notice is that we all still share that drive to do something meaningful with our lives.

Children, young people and adults all seem to have built into our very DNA the need to be needed. Research (not to mention common sense) suggests that we need communities and people to help us become who we truly need to be. As children, we need to have people in our lives, like Maria Montessori or my grandmother, who show us that we can contribute in significant ways to our families, our schools and our communities. As young people, we want to have our ideas and voices heard by those around us, and we want to contribute in significant ways. As adults, our work—whether at home or in the workplace—needs to contribute to the meaning of the family, organization or institution. Answering the question “WHY are we doing this?” is ultimately important. All of us need to know that the things that we are doing have value and meaning. Often, we need to feel that our work serves our neighbour. Giving of ourselves with no expectation or exchange of goods or service develops in us caring, servant hearts. Children have to learn caring for others at an early age; young people need to see that the world is bigger than themselves; adults need to know that their careers, vocation and work contributes to the good in the world; finally, seniors need to find other meaning in their lives, outside of vocation (and I don’t include playing golf or sitting on a beach-though both are fun).

As educators, we develop learning experiences that help students discover, grow, and contribute to the larger community. As parents, we give our children the opportunity to do real work that contributes to the family. As young people, we seek our roles and vocation and try out many different ways forward. As adults, we seek the bigger picture of meaningful work, and want to be part of an organization or institution that fulfills our deepest need to be culture-makers. And finally, as people who are no longer in the regular workforce, we seek opportunities to also create meaning for ourselves and others.

As you work with students, colleagues and community members, you are really working yourselves out of a job. Your job is to empower your students so that they don’t need to learn from you again. Just as parents show their children how to take care of themselves, cook for themselves, handle themselves out in the big world, we work to show students that they are true agents themselves—culture-makers. Through our examples and connections with them, they will in turn grow to help others become who they are meant to be. Sharing our wisdom; giving young people agency to do things for themselves; helping them to contribute to their communities, families, schools and churches—Maria Montessori did it; my grandmother did it. Can you?