What will inspire cynics like us?

When I was a new teacher, the woman in charge of training read to us — repeatedly — from Chicken Soup for the Soul. Inspirational stories meant to uplift us and instill passion for our jobs. Even as a novice, I was much too cynical for that.

My friends and I laughed about it, trying to drown our annoyance in camaraderie, but I could hardly contain my disdain whenever she picked up that book. Seriously? More Chicken Soup?

Maybe elementary teachers are warmer and fuzzier, but most of the high school teachers I know don’t like pseudo-inspirational talk. It doesn’t ring true, and it doesn’t fit our day to day reality.

I was reminded of this today, when we watched a brief video at the close of a staff meeting about what students want from their teachers — and what teachers want for their students. It was the usual dreamy stuff, written on chalkboards, and I wondered: If this doesn’t resonate with me, what would?

More importantly, how can a school leader go about inspiring a pack of cynics like us? I don’t envy them.

The best approach, I think, is to be specific — and honest.

One of the teachers in the video wrote: “Every day is a blank canvas – Paint!” That sounds nice, but every day in economics class isn’t a blank canvas, and I know that. So do the students.

Still, every day in economics can be meaningful.  

If I do my job well, every day in economics is a chance to learn a new way of seeing and making sense of the world. If I do my job well, my students will leave every day feeling more capable and informed, and they will start to engage in civic life at a higher level.

If I do my job well, every day in economics will create connections and opportunities for my students — and that’s what inspires me.

So how can we capture those feelings about what we do, in an authentic way that resonates with high school teachers?

Why not survey our own students and teachers and find out what is working in our classrooms, and share those stories?  Explain how a student was motivated by the robotics team and went into engineering — or how an art teacher made a student’s school day liveable by giving them a creative outlet.

Share the story of a student who didn’t like writing, until they were applauded for their work during a poetry slam. Or a student who wasn’t planning to go to college, until a teacher shared their work with a college professor, who praised its potential.

These don’t have to be rags to riches tales, and they don’t have to be professionally written. They just have to be real.

Start there, and I think we’ll find plenty of stories that inspire.

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