When I was in junior school, I had a teacher who taught me the glories of the English language. He inspired in me the desire to know about words and what they do in sentences. He made sense of why we had to learn grammar.
“If you want to know how to put something together,” he said, “you need to know what it is made up of and how it has been assembled. So, if you want to use a sentence properly, you need to know what the function of each word is and how it fits into the sentence.”
When I heard this, I knew that there was a reason for studying parts of speech and sentence structure. But it was not only the explanation which motivated me to learn. It was because he spoke beautifully. He had an expansive vocabulary and his diction was precise and suited to the occasion. I was moved by his words.
Then when I went to high school, I met Ms Nicholls. She could see that I enjoyed writing and she did everything she could to encourage me. She was enthusiastic when I handed in a piece of work, and gave me critical, intelligent feedback. Her positive encouragement lit the light of my desire to be a writer and it has never been extinguished. Sometimes it has faltered and sometimes it has flared with creativity, but it has always been there.
I have these two teachers to thank for the effect they have had on my life. I cannot remember any of the details they taught, or the rules, or the syllabus. I remember their inspiration. They awakened the best in me.
If you look back on your life at school and consider which teachers had the most profound effect on you, you will probably admit that they showed at least one of the following qualities:
- They accepted who you were and where you were.
- They encouraged and awakened you to your potential
- They loved what they were teaching (and with it went all the sub-categories of being innovative, organised and knowledgeable).
- And then there are those special teachers who lived what they taught: the language teacher who wrote poetry, or the music teacher who played in a band, or the biology teacher who went hacking over weekends.
Obviously, we can’t turn on a tap and hope that our children will be inspired, neither can we determine who will be inspired or who will respond to our particular nature and style of teaching. We can however, cultivate the qualities of an inspiring teacher: We can practise authenticity, give genuine praise often and have honest expectations of ourselves and every learner we teach.
Strangely enough, whether or not we inspire others has a great deal to do with how authentic we are. Authenticity can be described as an alignment of thought and feelings, speech and action. If any one of these is out of kilter with the rest, we come across as insincere. Children are very good at picking up insincerity, and insincerity is a sure nail in the coffin of inspiration. So, when you greet a class, make sure you are right there, giving full attention to every child and how he or she is doing. Try to set aside your own personal agenda and opinions and allow each child to “be”. Then you will be able to connect fully with the abilities, dreams and aspirations of the child. Then you will be able to hear fully and not just listen to what is being said. You will inspire confidence and trust in your learners and this will be transferred onto the academic material you present. When you have the trust of your learners, they will want to try their best. Besides, how can anyone who is “asleep” awaken anyone else?
Praise is an important element in inspiration and motivation, but that praise needs to be genuine. Children know when they have given of their best and when they have just “done enough”. Praise as a form of manipulation is easily recognised.
How do we give honest praise? The praise is for the behaviour or the work that is being done. It is definitely not comparative, or in relation to the rest of the class, but is relative to the capacity of the child. The praise need not be for the entire work, but could be for an element in the work. Sometimes, when we know a child has not done as well as he or she could have, it is important to say so. The intention is to make clear to the child that you know the level of work that is possible. This leads us onto the next aspect.
We have all heard of the Pygmalion Effect, the study which posits that the expectations we have of someone determines the way in which that person behaves. In other words, if you believe someone is creative, they will begin to model their behaviour so that they are creative. Teachers who inspire are teachers who believe in the abilities of their learners and encourage them when they falter, advise them on how to improve and meet their goals and take a genuine interest in the work they present. The expectations we hold of someone could awaken in them something they never thought possible.
Expectation is a very powerful force. However, the expectations we have of our learners need to be realistic, hence the term “honest expectations”. It is a fine line one walks between seeing what a child is really capable of and how much they can improve, and of holding a prejudiced idea of their ability. I remember one of my daughters being indignant because a teacher accused her of being helped with a piece of work, which of course she had not been. What it showed was that the teacher didn’t really believe in her potential. She was unaware of the level of work my daughter could produce. I also have experience of an entire piece of work being plagiarised because a pupil was scared of disappointing me and felt he could not match my expectations. We both learnt a great deal from that experience. So, while we expect the best, we need to make sure the expectations are real.
We would all love to be recognised as inspiring teachers, because we see our role as so intimately tied to moving the innermost parts of our learners. We want to penetrate beyond the superficial and really add meaning to their lives. Inspiring teachers know they cannot force feed knowledge into their learners. They realise that that they are more like tuning forks, which gently tap the instrument to allow the innermost essence to resonate with the harmony of life.
Perhaps the words of Robert Frost best sum up the role of the inspiring teacher, “ I am not a teacher, but an awakener.”