Inspired College Teaching

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The need for inspiration came up in a conversation that started with a sigh. “Yeah, the always exciting start of the academic year is over. We’re into that long, mid-course stretch, and I could sure use some inspiration.” I admire this honest admission. Many of us experience the mid-course letdown but don’t acknowledge it to others or to ourselves.

Teaching Professor Blog

Inspiration—you know when you have it and sometimes when you don’t, but that doesn’t make it easy to define. It’s a kind of emotional additive, something that enhances the teaching and makes it more than it ordinarily is. Inspiration generates motivation. It makes us focus more, try harder, reach for higher goals, and feel more empowered.

Teachers don’t need to be inspired all the time. Some days we just need to carry on and complete the assorted details of daily instruction. But at some point the doing and the doldrums start to mingle, and we could use a spark. Unfortunately, inspiration is not like bread and bananas, easily picked up on the way home. It’s more often encountered than acquired. We can identify where it’s likely to be found; below are some of the places you might find it.

In your colleagues

Our colleagues can inspire us. Some shamelessly believe in students’ ability to learn and unflaggingly support learning efforts. Others never stop questing to do better. Rather than recount what’s working, they tell us about those three students in the back who still haven’t connected with the course and what they’re trying to do for them. Finding inspiration from these teachers isn’t about trying to teach as they do; it’s about the energy and purpose they exude. Talking to inspired teachers makes it tough to stay enervated. Their energy spills over and waters the dry ground under our feet.

In your students

As the course unfolds, less than inspiring student behaviors emerge. A tired teacher can get fixated on these. But poor responses to learning aren’t typical of every student. It’s possible to find inspiration in small signs of progress—an improved exam score, a good answer volunteered in class, a visit during office hours, or a thoughtful email about something in the reading. Sometimes the inspiration comes because we can link our teaching actions to the improved outcome—as when a paper is better because the student attended to our feedback. It’s inspiring to be part of the learning process. Then there’s inspiration that can be found in students’ stories. We can encourage students to tell us about their journey to this institution or their first connections with content they’re growing to love. Some of them credit us with helping them to learn and thank us for believing in them. Timely student comments have been known to keep teachers inspired for a week.

In what you read

I’m a huge fan of reading, and there are many ways to keep ideas and inspiration flowing from what we read into our teaching. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a book, an article, a blog post, or something on social media. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a quotation. In the teaching newsletter I wrote for Penn State faculty, I included a variety of different articles, some quite creative (I thought) and others informative. There were references, copies of articles that readers could request, and always a quotation. I surveyed readers by asking them to identify their favorite feature, and to my surprise, those quotations topped the list. Some of us have learned to put inspirational reminders where we’ll run into them, whether in our lecture notes, on the calendar, or in the office.

In yourself

Inspiration can be found within, and discovery of it can start with personal recognition of accomplishments. Some of us are so reluctant to give ourselves credit for things done well. Yes, everything can always be done better, but most of us do regularly hit home runs in our courses. Those few minutes when we finesse a discussion and everybody is tuned in . . . yes! It’s inspiring what a teacher can accomplish. When more thoughtful reflection leads us back to core values, we reconnect with the reasons that brought us to teaching. Why do I teach? Why does it matter? Is it important? Does it make a difference? Is it worth doing well? The answers are in our hearts, and for most of us they are a source of inspiration.

Inspiration can keep us moving through the long, middle stretch of our courses and maybe our careers. We need to keep looking for it.