Teaching inspiration

What if

Teaching Inspiration

I am a longtime educator. I have worked in K-12 for 25 years as both classroom teacher and administrator. I have taught college graduate course in educational technology, teaching of reading, action research and more. Over the years I have seen two repeating themes in young teachers: the need for classroom management strategies, and the almost insatiable appetite to believe that it would get easier.

I am also a parent of four children and grandparent to four more. That happens if you hang around long enough, and your children are inclined to repeat some of the same mistakes you made. I see how the nature vs. nurture dialectic plays out uniquely in each generation. The English literature teacher in me sees it like one of Shakespeare plays, a theme in variation, ever the same yet with stylistic differences.

The older I became, I have found that younger adults would often defer to me. Whether it is kindness or respect was sometimes hard to know. However, I definitely remember several adults who asked me if they should go into the teaching profession. My stock reply:

There are two things in this world I never suggest people do unless they feel called to it: having children, and teaching.

Perspective and Context

I entered teaching before I ever had my own children. I always knew I wanted children ever since I was young. I do not know if that is typical for a young man, or was it just an understanding that I had with myself in one of those intimate conversations in the mirror? When I was a teenager, I pictured myself becoming a doctor; maybe a surgeon. When I was even younger than that, I thought of my future self becoming a “scientist.” It seemed to wrap up all that I thought was important in “becoming a man.”

Fast forward to college. I became a Psychology major and English minor. It took six long years with multiple deviations on my path; I ran away from home at age 24 to get married. Then I took my first real job as a third grade teacher in Ithaca, New York. I made a staggering $6350 my first year. At least now I can say that was last century’s wages.

I remember that I came home and cried after my first two days on the job. Literally. I realized that my four years of college has not prepared me to deal with a room of 25 eight-year-olds. (Yes, class size was smaller then.) My wife told me I could not quit no matter how I felt. I had to stick it out for the year. I had signed a contract, and that contract spoke to my character.

My wife was finishing her four-year degree that Fall. We had one source of income. We had just settled into a life in snow-belt country. I stayed on the job. After the brief tears and doubts, I embraced the challenge.

Moment of Truth

I realized that I knew virtually nothing about how to teach reading. That was easily my first order of business The other was organizing the days into manageable chunks of instructional time. So one evening a week I got in the car and drove one hour to a Teaching of Reading class at Syracuse University. Because I had an actual teaching position, I found myself in the same class as “experienced teachers.” I was ever aware of the irony, yet I knew I had found my calling. I just desperately needed to know how to fulfill it.

Searching for Inspiration: The Not Yet of Mastery

Yes, we all need it: teachers, students, administrators, parents. Board of Education members and perhaps even a few politicians might need it – along with some backbone. But what is inspiration? Why do we need it?

Human beings are complex creatures, and teaching is one of the most complex acts of human engineering conceived. Taylor Mali lets us know what teachers really make.  Daniel Pink’s video explores what motivates us. Carol Dweck explores the growth mindset and the power of “not yet.”

We have free will, the ultimate in growth mindsets. With the ability to win big comes the chance to fail miserably. Our goals and objectives may be different, yet we have the near universal need to believe we are doing the right thing – regardless of the reasons. Doubt is a necessary part of human nature. We aspire, we choose, and we doubt. THe surest motivation is that which comes from within. We seek inspiration more than we seek answers.


Creating an engaging learning environment can be arguably said to be the teacher’s most difficult task. However, engaging students is a function of hard work by the teacher. It is not just exuberance. For example, Buck Institute of Education is a leading force in Project Based Learning. Projects are meant to invite participation. They typically begin with entry events. “Entry events should engage and intrigue, and provoke students to want to know more.” Feedback and tasks are thoughtful, genuine and have a linkage to that entry event. What a great philosophy of learning!

Imagination, Play and Control

Imagination is inspiration’s cousin. It often requires a period of fermentation. Sometimes it requires a certain amount of playfulness. It gives voice to our emotional nature. Like it or not, school is place where we learn to play and interact as well as solve problems and master content.

Google’s 20% genius time approach to stimulating engagement and achievement is based on the premise that if you allow your talent pool – whether engineers or students – some choice and control in what they create, they will turn out superior results. In Google’s case, they allow their engineers one day a week to work on projects of their own choice. Both Gmail and Google Talk were developed in this way. ESchoolNews writes a fascinating article about how two English teachers adapted this approach to their classes.

What if

Imagine what if. What if learning were inspired and engaging? What if students were motivated to learn? What if they could follow their interests? What if teachers felt supported, valued and had all the tools they needed? What if a child’s education were the most important thing in the world?


For further reading, check out “Half the World is Not Enough” by Lev Grossman. This Time Magazine article explores and dissects Mark Zuckerberg’s plan to get every human online.