Inspirational figures?

Full-time teacher and TES behaviour expert Tom Bennett will be contributing a regular weekly blog on pedagogy to the TES website. This week why ‘inspirational speakers’ seldom live up to their billing

Tom Bennett

The next person who claims they’re an ‘inspirational speaker’ is getting chinned. I have seen, in my short tenure as a man in the world of education, this quality alluded to on hundreds of occasions. Usually, it is in the strapline of some dismal educational consultant’s web page: ‘Billy Big-Balls is a national inspirational speaker; he regularly walks into schools and everyone falls over with inspiration, and then he inspires the janitor, the dinner lady and the postie.’ What they actually mean is ‘I think rather a lot of myself; in fact, were I composed of toffee, I would suck myself to death.’ That sort of thing.

What does engagement really mean?

I wouldn’t mind so much; people can write what they like on their web pages, and Twitter bios (where the phrase ‘passionate about inspiring young minds’ appears to be somewhat of a shibboleth for people who believe they are related to the Messiah). Seriously, fill your boots, knock yourself out, go nuts. What is a problem is the drip-drip effect that this collective dogma of inspiration has caused. A recent phenomena in education is the idea that children learn best when ‘engaged’; this is a broad, ambiguous term that has as many meanings as you fancy. To some it means ‘interested’; to others, it means ‘entertained.’

Quite apart from the fact that this is extremely debatable, the other problem of this insistence on engagement is that teachers are then encouraged to believe that not only is ‘engagement’ a part of good learning, but that it is required and learning is impossible without it.

You can’t manufacture inspiration

From engagement it’s a short leap of faith into inspiration. The word comes from Latin, meaning to ‘breathe into’ and has a religious context - the breath of God inspiring the recipient with creativity, enthusiasm and will. We’ve all experienced it. It is, of course, a state profoundly to be desired, accompanied as it often is with feelings of potency, direction and clarity.

But when we speak of the necessity of inspiring children, then we enter the territory of the shaman, the quack, and the psychologically untenable. The pseudo-scientist, essentially. I have been inspired by many things: the fanfare from Superman; the example of Maximilian Kolbe; even the haunted expression on a self-portrait of Van Gogh. I have also, I suppose, been instrumental in the inspiration of others; students who have had the grace or the flattery to say so. But this is sporadic and unintentional; I can no more decide to inspire someone than I can make them fall in love with me.

Inspiration is incidental; it is not an end in itself. It is achieved as a by-product of other activities. It is not an activity that can be engaged with at will. It cannot be summoned on command. It is not a genie.

They leave you dangling…

I can say this with some authority, because for several years I was an enthusiast of seminars and courses specialising in inspiring pupils. NLP played a large part in this industry. What they meant by inspiration, I realised, was simply a faux version. It is easy to whip a crowd up into some kind of frenzy with the right words, the right attitude and a charismatic speaker. Tell people that they are capable of achieving anything - but do not tell them how to do it. Tell them they are possessed of unimaginable depths and capacities - but do not tell them how to develop them. Tell them you believe in them, and will never give up on them - and then leave the room.

Inspirational seminars are cultish; worse, they are patronising. Bad enough for an adult to waste their money on it; even worse to imagine that the same plastic sentimentality should be injected into the minds of young people who need guidance, not feel-good platitudes.

Creating the right conditions

You want to inspire someone? Then you have to create the conditions where inspiration is possible… and then stand back. It cannot be forced; it cannot be measured. Have high expectations of people - your students, your colleagues, yourself most of all. Set clear boundaries, and patrol them jealously. Step up to the people you’re entrusted with; call them out when they fall behind, and help them keep up. Push and push and push them. Train them to have habits that will help them succeed; civility, tenacity, self restraint, focus. Be an example of these things yourself.

If you do that, then you may find you have inspired someone. But don’t weep if you haven’t because you’ve done exactly what they needed, and if you’re lucky, they’ll achieve the same result themselves. Inspiration isn’t a trick or a messiah-complex. It’s magic. We don’t do magic. We teach.

Magic is extra.

A level playing field?

Who is Tom Bennett

Tom is a full-time teacher in an inner-city school and he’ll be blogging for us weekly on pedagogy and classroom management. Tom offers regular behaviour advice on the TES website and runs the TES behaviour forum. He also writes for the TES magazine, trains teachers across the UK and is the author of The Behaviour Guru, Not Quite a Teacher and Teacher.