A Sideways View

New stirrings in business psychology

Inspirational Teachers

What are the characteristics of a seriously inspirational school teacher

 

Teachers and trainers can, and do, change lives. They can determine choice of university and courses taken. They can directly influence on career choices. They can light candles in the darkest mind. They model attitudes, beliefs and behaviours, thereby setting an example to follow. They can replace distracted parents. The can find deep rivers of talent that others cannot.

Most importantly they can often help people find out what they are good at, passionate about and things they do in a state of “flow”. In short they help them find their real strengths.

Practically everybody can nominate such a person, usually a secondary school teacher or university lecturer. Many keep in touch partly out of thanks, partly looking for continuing inspiration. Indeed we are recommended so to do and in “gratitude communications” really thank them for what they have done for us.

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Often the best teachers are not among the most successful. Nor are they necessarily the Dead Poets Society radical teachers. Inspirational teachers in universities probably spend too little time in library and laboratory scribbling for those all-important publications necessary for promotion. Some don’t care for high (management) positions because they know where both their strengths and joys lie. They often prefer their students (preferring bright, energetic, forward-looking young people) to their sour, political and jealous colleagues.

The History Boys by Alan Bennett was a play about inspirational teachers. It contrasted the eccentric and intrinsically motivated with the pragmatic and extrinsic type of teacher. It was clear whom you were to admire and whom to despise. It was a critique of the modern obsession with grades which encourages superficial, achievement-oriented as opposed to deep learning. The aim is grade achievement not understanding: the ability to satisfy examiners not the imagination.

So what are the characteristics of the inspirational teacher?

First, there is unbounding enthusiasm, even passion, for their subject. They show the thrill, the joy and the sheer pleasure of acquiring skills and knowledge in a particular area. And they are able to communicate this. Indeed they cannot hide it. You can’t easily fake passion – or at least not over a sustained period. All great teachers are passionate. Work becomes play with them. The motivation is purely intrinsic. They define the very concept of Flow.

Second, they are evangelists, trying to convert minds rather than achieve exam oriented goals. They want others to share their joy and passion, believing it is good for them. They really want to communicate the good news. One of the characteristics of the inspirational evangelist is that they never retire. They don’t want to and neither do their employees want them to. They are simply too valuable. Further, good administrators know it. They soon become “emeritus” but usually eschew the titles preferring simply to carry on ignoring the passing of the years.

Third, they set high standards. Inspirational teachers are not merely benevolent, kindly parental substitutes. They have the highest expectations in people. They do not compromise but they do encourage. They teach the “hard stuff” but in a way it can be grasped. They understand the learning process and the markers along the way. They are able thus to get the best out of people and it is often for this that they are profoundly admired. They know what individual pupils are capable of, and they strive to help them achieve their potential.

Fourth, they update their material, metaphors and messages. Every generation needs a different introduction to the discipline. They come with different experiences and expectations. Their hot (and cold) buttons are different. They need to be approached differently. The inspirational teacher is thus always in fashion able to appeal to many throughout their careers. It goes without saying that they have to update their knowledge as well.

Fifth, there is the issue of adaptation and flexibility. This means knowing how to “package the brand” differently to appeal to different individuals and generations. The intelligence, social backgrounds and values of students dictates they have to be addressed differently. Brilliant teachers can and do this.

There is a current fashion for executive coaches in business. A great teacher is, of course, both a coach and a role model. All great teachers bring their topic alive by constantly referring to current events and how knowledge of the subject enable students to better understand the world around them. They show the subject’s relevance.

Are work based trainers in the same category? Sometimes. People in training companies do enter-trainment and edu-tainment well because they know the reaction on the happy sheets determines whether they are re-employed. But training at work is often too short-term, too skill focused and too pragmatic to have great teachers want to become great trainers.

Inspirational teachers inspire by intrinsic motivation. Their students will voluntarily stay on after school, write essays that “don’t count”, and do additional reading. They paint the big picture, and direct students to excellent sources.

Skills-based teaching, as in the performing arts, crafts and technology, is no different. Students apprenticed to a master will often acknowledge their amazing insight and dedication to shaping their skills. It is no accident that the “master-class” is so popular in business.

And why are inspirational teachers the way they are? Intelligence, knowledge, multi-skilled…all of the above. But most say they became teachers or lecturers because they themselves had an inspirational teacher. So it’s not genetic….but it certainly is passed on.

 

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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