Sunday, March 20, 2011

Motivation and Inspiration

I recently had the privilege to speak to the staff at my old school. It was such a breath of fresh air to walk into the hallway of a new school day. Even though I am really content with my career choice at this moment, I was a little jealous of my ex-colleagues and the day that was ahead of them, filled with kids and creativity and a bit of holy chaos. Maybe a lot of chaos. I really do miss teaching.

I spoke about motivation and inspiration:

Motivation: a chest-pounding, fist-in-the-air, Eye of the Tiger drive to achieve (cue music).

Inspiration: to breathe life into.

Definitions mine.

I subscribe to both. I believe they are both important but fundamentally different. So, I asked which is more important as a teacher. The consensus lay with inspiration, reasons being that it was longer lasting, more authentic, true to our humanity, and more powerful to create change. Agreed.

And then I asked what we focus on in schools. As teachers, we spend our days motivating. We find creative and sometimes sneaky ways to motivate kids to read a book, do a math problem, complete their homework, stay quiet....etc. We are trained to give the "tools and strategies" they need to achieve, and that is a good thing. It's easy to motivate. You get psyched yourself, put Chariots of Fire on the Ipod (I've actually done that), and then dangle a reward or punishment in front of them. I'm a master at motivation. I can bend the will of almost any kid I've ever encountered.

But how do you inspire?

I can only model inspiration. I need to be inspired myself, and then live out that inspiration in front of my students, unashamedly. Sure, I'm not always inspired, but I know how to get inspired. I know whose blog to read, and which TED video to watch, I know to hit the mountains, find some solitude, drink a bottle of wine with certain friends. I know to run and reflect and listen to opera. I know to pray.

Find inspiration.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I am currently working as an instructional designer. But really, I am in the business of teacher-proofing education. As we move more toward online learning, or whatever you want to call it, there is more emphasis on student-driven learning, or self-directed learning. In other words, learning without a teacher. Everything you want to know, or know how to do, you can get off the Internet. I want to learn how to use the Adobe CS suite and I could either pay to take a structured face-to-face course, which seems very cumbersome, or dig up a tutorial online and learn at my own convenience. Between Open Source Courseware and You Tube, the entire world of knowledge is there for the taking. And that's great.

So, what is the point of the teacher? The thing that I am most passionate about seems to be becoming less important, and sometimes I feel like I'm the one driving it into the grave.

The thing is, I still believe in teaching, despite my current career choice, or perhaps because of what I am learning from it. I have no doubt the students can learn by themselves (some of them), but what a magical piece we are missing when we remove the teacher from education! Yes, we are technicians in a way: we write courses, we manage classrooms and behaviour, we give instruction, we assess and write reports, we prepare lesson plans and communicate with parents, we design activities, we keep up with the latest technology and try to meet the learning needs of everyone in the class. However, the teacher brings something to the class that no online program will offer: human connection. And through that human connection we get inspiration, empathy and deeper understanding. The role of the teacher is to get the students psyched on the content, on the world around them, and on their own capabilities.

"We need to be less concerned with developing and purchasing practitioner-proof products and more concerned with supporting product-proof practitioners- Jody Fitzpatrick

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Planned Failure

"Failure is always an option"
- Adam Savage

What if we fostered more failure in the classroom? For most kids, school is a place of performance, a place where they are constantly being judged, measured and evaluated. If you "Google" quotes about failure you will find hundreds of references from very successful people about the value of failure, from Albert Einstein to CS Lewis. So, how do we encourage failure, support it, and teach children to learn from it without destroying their self esteem in a system that values A's and success on the first go?

Once again, I return to the most reliable tool we have: modeling. As adults, we are even worse at putting ourselves in vulnerable situations. Why? Because we have the ability to choose our path and we tend to choose the direction of our abilities. I mean, who chooses to do something they are not very good at? We don't like to feel like a fumbling novice, overwhelmed by a new situation, made to look incompetent in front of others. So how, as teachers, can we empathize with children in the classroom? My dear friend and colleague, Joline, introduced me to the idea of "Planned Failure" many years ago. She enrolls herself in a new activity or project each year in order to keep fresh the experience of learning (and everything that goes with it). Simple, yet brilliant. My first planned failure project was art class. The worst painting on history was plastered to my fridge door all year to remind me daily of what it is like to feel awkward and incompetent again. But I was also reminded of nights spent hunkered over a canvas with paint up my arms and the freedom to just explore a new part of myself. Last year, I tried rock-climbing. It is frustrating, but also exhilarating to find yourself at that end of the learning curve.

So for 2011, I'm still coming up with my planned failure project. I'm thinking of trying to squeeze design classes into my busy work and PhD schedule. And I've enrolled in a mountain bike skills clinic. That will guarantee failure. The good thing is that practicing vulnerability transfers to other areas of my life in which I'd prefer not to taking some risks with my career.

Finally, this is one of my favorite commercials on failure:Michael Jordan