Four Ways Teachers Can Inspire Students

[Note: This was written before revelations about Bill Cosby’s personal behavior made him someone whose words one would hesitate to quote, even if the words themselves are exactly right.]

As I have written before, a teacher’s first job is to inspire students to learn. Konrad Glogowski has written along similar lines about “passion-based learning,” and my Grade 8 students recently read his article and added their own thoughts on their class blog.

Reading their posts, I find some common threads about what teachers can do to inspire their students.

1. Be passionate yourself, and share your passion with your students. Most of my students agree that an uninspired teacher will not inspire students. “I believe that teachers being passionate in teaching is the key to everything,” writes a Grade 8 girl.

2. Explain why. Repeatedly my students say that when they don’t understand the point of an activity or lesson, they lose interest. History lessons seem to be a particular problem (“Who wants to learn history? The stuff in the past doesn’t matter anymore. What does matter instead is the future.”) but any topic can seem irrelevant if its relevance is never explained. By chance I came across an article in Teacher Magazine in which comedian Bill Cosby is interviewed on exactly this subject. Cosby tells about a speaking engagement in which he discovered that one of the panel members was a math teacher.

I said, “Perfect. I’ll be the kid.” He looks at me. I said, “You’re the teacher.”

I looked at him and I said, “Why I gotta know this?” And he stared back at me. I said, “You teach algebra?” He said yes. I said, “Why I gotta know this?”

I turned to [the audience] and I said, “If you can’t out-argue a kid about your passion, the discipline you’re in, then you might as well take the job, put it down, and go on over to the post office. You’ve got to be able to tell these children the beauty of your passion.”

3. Teach for understanding. If students find a topic boring, 9 times out of 10 they don’t understand it. “Whenever you stop understanding things, you also lose interest . . . .” (On the other hand, if the teacher finds it boring, we have a different problem altogether. See #1, above.)

4. Be supportive, kind, and open. Primary school teachers understand this. Unfortunately, too many secondary school teachers seem to think their first commitment is to the curriculum, not the students. They forget, too, that even though adolescents try to act older than they are, they still respond very well to kindness, and very poorly to its absence. (Who doesn’t, in fact?) Listen to what my students say.

•“I didn’t have to think, Boy, that was a stupid question. . . . The way she taught was really helpful.”

•[When students] “hate the subject and the teacher . . . there won’t be any deep thinking, creative ideas, or enthusiastic debating in class.”

•“There is a teacher that once made English my favourite subject. . . . She was never annoyed at students asking questions and [having to] repeat the explanations over and over. . . . She paid attention to every single student, and thought about our projects together. Since she was an easy person to talk to, many students asked for further advice and guidance. She also constantly encouraged us, and she shared many stories and ideas with us.”

•“Most of the time, I hate the subjects, because I don’t really like the teacher who is teaching it.”

•“Teachers also have to be supportive and kind to all students so that students feel comfortable about talking to teachers about their passions and asking questions about them.”

Students clearly understand the importance of teachers being kind and open, and cultivating positive relationships with students. I wish every teacher understood this, too.

Author: Eric MacKnight

I have been teaching English since 1980 in the United States, Morocco, Switzerland, Austria, Canada, The Netherlands, and China. Good Habits, Good Students is my first book.

6 thoughts on “Four Ways Teachers Can Inspire Students”

  1. I think teachers who are open and understanding have the most success at “reaching students.” Some teachers forget that children have lives outside of the classroom that effect their performances and behaviors in the classroom. Growing up, I enjoyed teachers who I could tell loved their job, and I guess some teachers think students can’t tell, but they can.

  2. I appreciated hearing that the stories and shared experiences of the English teacher were important to your student. As a middle school teacher, I sometimes feel that type of sharing is often seen as a “digression” that leads students away from learning. In my view, it is a part of a natural “progression” that allows students to relate to the teacher as another human being and thereby form a connection that makes learning possible.

  3. I am an adult literacy instructor and my students enjoy hearing and sharing experiences. As members of society it is important that we share and learn from each other all of the way through life. This should never stop in an educational setting as it is a learned behaviour.

  4. I have this teacher who is just rude and downright a terrible teacher. She expects us to know everything even though she hasn’t taught us an ounce of anything. It may be an honors class but still for some of us it is not our best subject. I try going up to her and asking for help but she tell me “you need to figure this out on your own because you should know it already.” A few days ago she told us the reason she got into teaching, “I m just so sick of all these stupid people,” she said. English is not my best class and this is the first time I have been in honors out of 3 chances. I do not know as much as the others in class do but I am willing to learn.
    I just wish that I could make her see what a terrible teacher she is and make her change her teaching ways….

    1. Samantha, I’m so sorry to hear that you are having this kind of experience.

      I’m an English teacher myself. If you think I could help you in any way, drop me an email (the link is in the left-hand sidebar, under “Contact Me”).

      Best wishes!

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