I sometimes teach a unit based on inspirational figures. It’s one of my favourites: basically a series of biographies of significant people who might have escaped the students’ attention in other parts of the curriculum. The class learns about their lives and achievements, a little context, and the ways in which their ethical or religious beliefs intersect with the carotid artery of human history.
I like this unit because it offers an extraordinary opportunity for creating what good religious education can be: a launch pad to explore the complex intersection between human belief and action. It’s easy to let the subject slide into a candyfloss swamp of happy thoughts and tambourines. Another plus is that I can tailor the lessons to each class – I can add a recent prominent activist or two, even take suggestions about someone who they want to study.
It’s easy to focus on the big beasts of the inspiration circuit: Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King. But over the years, I’ve shone a light on Dian Fossey, Maximilian Kolbe, Muhammed Ali, Malala Yousafzai, Sir James Brooke, Nikola Tesla and many others. The students learn about human endeavour through the lives of those who lived it fully, and then consider what the implications are for them – including any disputes they might have with the figures we examine. It’s one of the most popular topics I teach and, almost universally, my classes lap it up.
Until one student threw this at me. “Not inspiration again,” she said. “We’re always getting this: ‘Be the best you can be, you can do anything, don’t let others tell you who you are.’ I’m so bored of all this inspiration.”
You could have knocked me down with a copy of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It would be easy to dismiss this as typical teenage negging. Variants of “Why do we have to learn this?” have been heard since the day that Fred Flintstone opened Bedrock Free School. But it gave me pause, and it made me wonder: could we be accused of over-egging the motivation pudding?
It probably is possible to spoil the soup with too much salt. I’ve seen keen new leaders launch into programmes of positive engagement that feel more like star jumps in a Chinese school – “You will be motivated, you will reach for the stars. What will you do? I CAN’T HEAR YOU, WHAT WILL YOU DO?”
Assembly after assembly showing YouTube clips of people climbing mountains, wading through snow or working out in a darkened gym, while stirring montage music plays gaily in the background. And I’ve seen students watch these clips with the same glazed look they use for road safety adverts, while those delivering the session congratulate themselves at lighting a million fires in hearts that remain as cold as a stone.
You can pay for this kind of experience, too: consultants who will bark and clap at you from the stage and tell you to shout about how awesome you are. For their money, I would whoop and holler as well.
The need for us to provide students with as much encouragement and positivity as possible is undeniable. Many of our children will find little of it elsewhere. And even where their home life offers more support, it is part of our holy mission to believe in them, make them feel this belief and then act upon it.
But inspiration is a delicate flower. It cannot be forced. It doesn’t come in a jar, or a video, and it certainly doesn’t have a price tag. It is lightning in a bottle. It is a wraith to be summoned by magic. It is a rain dance.
Not inspiration again.
Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71