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.

Finding inspiration

What do students need to be successful in school? What do people need to be good learners, whether in school or on their own?

They need three things.

  1. Reading Anyone can be a reader, and everyone benefits from reading.
  2. Good Habits Although schools expect students to have good habits, they rarely take the time to teach good habits. But anyone can acquire good habits, and everyone can benefit from them.
  3. Inspiration Without inspiration, what will motivate you to read, develop good habits, and learn? Inspiration is the engine that drives our efforts to improve. But why is it so hard to find?

The Lack of Inspiration

Potential sources of inspiration are all around us–so why are so many of us uninspired?

1. Daily living beats the inspiration out of us. Let’s face it, the daily routine is a grind. Seven lessons a day, five days a week is a grind. A lot of it is tedious, and dull. Often, the purpose of what we’re doing is unclear. Often, the connections between what we do in one lesson with what we do in other lessons are obscure, or missing altogether. The daily routine grinds us down.

2. We are out of touch with ourselves. We spend so much time and energy worrying about what others expect of us–how we should look, how we should act, what we should say, what music is cool, what fashions are cool, etc.–that we rarely take time to look inward and ask the really important questions: Who am I? Where am I? What should I be doing? We live in what has been called an “amusement culture”. This is interesting, because historically it is so bizarre. In most times and places, a society’s culture is defined by what people make and do. But in an amusement culture, most people make nothing; all they do is buy things, and amuse themselves. Shopping and playing, however, cannot be the centre of a good life. If shopping and playing are the centre of your life, you have an empty life–a life in which you are alienated from yourself. You’re not doing anything; you’re not making anything; you’re just keeping the economy going by buying things–things that, much of the time, you don’t even need. Things that, in a very short time, you won’t even want.

The 85-year-old Test

Here’s one way to get back in touch with your life. Imagine that you are 85 years old. When you look back on your life, you feel happy and proud. You were, most of the time, the best person you could be. The world, or at least the part of it you lived in and the people you touched, is better off because of you. How did you live your life?

What Is Your Dream?

“I have a dream!” proclaimed Martin Luther King, Jr. What is your dream? If you have a dream to pursue, a vision to fulfill, then you will be inspired. Everything you do, every day, will be a small step toward the realization of your dream. What is your dream? Excuse me? Did you say, you have no dream? When did you stop dreaming? Why? Find your dream. Follow your dream!

Who Will Care About You?

The economy will be very happy if you spend your life buying things. The government will be very happy if you spend your life working in a job you hate, just so long as you are producing something useful to the system. The government and the economy have no interest, however, in your personal happiness. They have no interest in whether, when you are 85 years old, you will look back on your life with pride and satisfaction. They don’t care whether you have a dream. Do you care?

Reading is crucial to learning. Good habits are crucial. But without inspiration, you will have little reason to read, and little reason to cultivate good habits. In fact, you will have little reason to learn, to grow, to be the best person you can be.

Don’t let the forces of dullness grind you down.

Get inspired!

Inspiration comes first

Anyone can build better habits. Anyone can master the habits that lead to success in school. But what will motivate a student to work hard and build good habits?


If you are uninspired, the first job is to start dreaming. Who do you want to be? Where do you want to go? Once you have a dream, you won’t have to search for motivation. Every time you feel tired, just think of your dream and the energy will come back. Follow that dream!

And teachers, remember that unmotivated students are uninspired students. Help them find a dream that will make the perspiration worthwhile.

Inspire them first; then ask them to work.