The Danger of “Inspiring” Teachers

Just before the university at which my wife teaches began its fall term, every faculty member was sent a copy of a book [What The Best College Teachers Do, by Ken Bain].  Because I did spend four years teaching at the collegiate level, I also read the book.  At first, as I progressed through the book, I was intrigued, then vaguely displeased.  When I finished I was fuming. 

Why?  Because the examples that Bain chooses invariably are “inspiring” teachers.  Now, I have nothing against “inspiring” teachers, or at least not too much, but it’s absolutely clear that Bain regards the primary function of teachers is inspiring their students to learn.  All other aspects of education are secondary in his view, from what I can tell.  Just how far have we come from the reputed statement of Thomas Edison that declared that success was one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration? The fact is that the majority of students – and people – learn from their failures, not their successes, and failures are usually not inspiring. Learning from them is work.  And work requires more effort than inspiration.

This is particularly important to consider, given that figures just released by ACT reveal that more than half of all entering college students lack either the reading, analytical, or mathematical skills, if not all three, adequate for college level courses.  All the inspiration in the world isn’t going to help much if students lack the grounding necessary for collegiate-level work.

In conjunction with this messianic text of praise to inspiration, the university also passed out to all faculty members a glossy color booklet entitled Extraordinary Educators, which profiled 12 faculty members for their “passion in inspiring excellence in their students.”  Since I was trained in a certain amount of analysis, I looked through the booklet and found it very interesting, and not in a particularly positive way.  Half of those profiled have been at the university five years or less, a quarter three years or less. Only two had been there more than ten years. I’m sorry, but you can’t prove excellence in just a few years. Half were women, all of them attractive, and five of the six were young.  Only two of the men and one of the women were past their late forties.  Because I have taught at the university and been active in university-connected matters and because my wife has been teaching there for twenty years, including stints as a department chair and a member of faculty senate, it’s fair to say we know a significant number of faculty members, and there are educators who are far more effective than at least half, and possibly 80% of those profiled.  Why were those educators who were profiled chosen?  Because, it would appear, they’re popular, and everyone wants into their classes. Popularity doesn’t preclude excellence, but it also doesn’t define it, and from what I’ve seen, too many college educators dumb down their classes to be popular, and administrations, at least in public universities, tacitly encourage it, in order to keep enrollments up. 

 The message I got from the book and booklet was that extraordinary educators must be young, attractive, and popular. Forget about evaluating professors on what they demand of their students or what those students actually learn.  Just look at the popularity numbers, student evaluations [which study after study has shown reward easy-grading faculty members], and class enrollments.

Inspiring educators?  How about more who require learning, effort, and perspiration?

10 thoughts on “The Danger of “Inspiring” Teachers”

  1. Dave says:

    You make the very valid comment that we learn more from our failures than from our successes. However, in today’s society children/young people are not allowed to fail. There must always be positive reinforcement, etc, etc. This over-protection has infected every area from the playground to the classroom. Is it any wonder then that the education system in many countries is currently in a massive mess. As a former teacher I tried to inspire my students to work, to put in some effort, to strive for excellence at whatever level they could personally achieve. I got more pleasure from seeing a struggling student succeed than from seeing a bright student score an ‘A’. Students need to lose their sense of ‘entitlement’ and gain the sense that real effort produces real results.

    1. Tim says:

      Dave – beware!!

      When I was 5 or 6 I was (apparently) a bright chap, getting top marks everywhere. The teacher however praised people who achieved a C when they normally scored lower. I was EXPECTEED to get As. What happened? My marks nose-dived and (according to my mother) it took a school term to understand what the underlying problem was. So – as I was not being rewarded – I adjusted my marks downward so I would be! I would hate to be a teacher 🙂

      1. steven says:

        Dave, while I understand your sentiment I have to agree with Tim. My daughter, while in 8th grade, felt devalued when a teacher she looked up to praised the “hardworking 2.0gpa student struggling to overcome their weaknesses” and mocked the “uptight 4.0gpa student to whom everything comes easy.” My daughter works very hard for her successes. Although it was petty, I told my daughter that the teacher was an idiot who had watched too many inner city, inspirational teacher movies. I then backtracked, telling my daughter to show respect for the teacher, ignore their comment and get an A.

  2. Elena says:

    I had a number of inspiring teachers at college and university. Maybe I use inspiring in a different sense than you are here though, considering that one of them pretty much set me on the course for my minor, when I’d already set my major.

    To me an inspiring teacher is one who makes a person want to know more about a topic than is required to pass the course. As such, their courses can lead to taking more courses on a subject, or doing self-study for years afterwards.

    Just as much work as any of the other courses – if not more, given how much reading a lot of my favourite courses involved, but there was something more to those courses and teachers. Enthusiasm for their subject, maybe? Approchability if you needed to ask questions? And, of course the big one – an ability to speak and write in such a way that the student didn’t need to strain to hear the lecture or squint at the board/screen to make out the information.

  3. J K says:

    I have also read that book, and I think you are being somewhat unfair. However, I agree that there is a slant towards popularity. This is evident even on the cover design! One teacher (I presume), dressed in what looks like ‘older’ clothing- a bow tie, if I remember correctly, and a sweater vest, is pictured in gray staring in seeming surprise through glasses that he is holding up to his face- another sign of older people, perhaps?- at another teacher, pictured in color, who is dressed in contemporary, youthful clothing and doing a handstand. (It may even be a one-arm handstand.)Is this what teaching requires? The most obvious worry about this image is that the authors view teaching as entertainment! And clearly teaching is something else. Of course, as you know, authors may very well not have anything to do with the choice of the cover image, and marketing is up to the publisher. But this still sets a tone for the book.

    But, to support my argument, in the earlier chapters Bain mentions a case where physics professors measure the outcomes of their teaching by having students answer questions to show how they now understand motion. The students (apparently) start with a view of motion that is vaguely Aristotelian, and one goal of this course is to get the students thinking of motion in Newtonian terms. The book mentions how the assignments, the lectures, the readings, etc. are all aimed at changing how the students think, i.e. to get them to see the world differently. All of this entails forcing the student to rethink their assumptions. The teachers provide feedback and give multiple opportunities to the students experiment and practice interpreting their experiences in the new desired way. And Bain emphasizes this style of teaching throughout the book.

    One book you might really like is Robert Leamnsons ‘Thinking about Teaching and Learning’. It is excellent. He argues that the goal of teaching is learning, and if learning isn’t happening, then no matter what the professor is doing, teaching isn’t happening either. This definition helps filter out the entertainment style of ‘teaching’. His definition of learning as strengthening synapses until the brain is changed, and therefore habits are changed, fits with your books. I love this Aristotelian view of teaching, and I think it fits your view of what one must do to live a good life.

    (P.S.- Is Fairhaven modeled on Plato’s Republic? I see some startling similarities.)

  4. Kathryn says:

    Going to the ‘inspiration’ topic, I think it’s not quite as Twain described it.

    As I see it, a teacher may have the ability to inspire their pupils. By this I don’t mean to give them the tools to create, but instead to ignite a passion about a subject. So an inspirational teacher would be like my Latin teacher, who fuelled – in me – an interest in pre-mediaeval history. I tried (and failed, because I never applied myself) to do Ancient Greek too. And I failed my Latin exam. This was because whilst I had a passion for the history, I struggled with the mechanics of the language. But that passion is still there.

    If you give students a drive to learn, they will learn. And a teacher can then guide a student and help focus that passion, and that is a good thing. After all, it’s easier to talk about something you love than something you’re ambivalent about, which in turn may help that student do better in exams, assignments and so on.

  5. What you say is absolutely true,but it’s far from the only criterion that defines an outstanding teacher, and my objection is to the reduction of defining outstanding strictly in terms of inspiring students, because that effectively makes excellence one-dimensional, which it is not, and also essentially places all responsibility on the teacher for a student’s learning.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    I did not realize which of my teachers in middle school, high school, and college were the ‘best’ until I reached medical school and ‘real world.’

    The best ones were the ones who pushed me to the brink of madness and drove me crazy. They were the ones who ‘got me ready’ for real life. I didn’t necessarily like them while I had them as teachers, but the lessons they taught were invaluable (and often surprisingly specific) later on.

  7. Rehcra says:

    I think I agree too hardily with Modesitt’s alluring towards non-mutual exclusivity; to agree with the sentiments behind the whole post but I got to say…

    The heading of the post would make a really good T-shirt. Both for those inspired by a teacher and those………


  8. Alan says:

    I believe there is a balance in most things. In teaching, certainly. Though to be fair, keep in mind the level of the professors involved. An elementary teacher, a middle school teacher, high school and college level course? Each, in my opinion, has a slightly different obligation to the students.

    They are all there to educate, to teach students. To teach them raw material and knowledge. To teach them how to learn and think. Accomplishing this requires a different methodology for each.

    An elementary teacher is dealing with young children with very limited attention spans. Absolutely no vested interest in learning the material. As you go up in grade this changes. But even into high school it’s difficult to promote education to the students. Many students see school as a trial to be endured on the way to adulthood. Not as a key part of their lives which will greatly influence what they are able to later accomplish.

    Now a college student, to my mind, is an entirely different ball of wax. Here is a student who is paying (Or some one is, rather!) for their education. They are not paying to be entertained or to like their professors. But to gain an education to assist them in life. It behooves them to pay attention, be engaged and work for their grades. The professor’s role should be to provide the education, make it available and ensure that the concepts are explained. Not to give ‘easy A’s’, or any other such popularity measures. To help the student to grow and develop, and ensure they are learning.

    It is not the professor’s job to make anything easy, to be liked nor to chase down the student and spoon feed them.

    A teacher, in any area, should praise hard work by a 4.0 student, or a 2.0 student. They should not give easy A’s. They do not need to inspire their students, but should endeavor to push them to the limits of their abilities to learn and develop.

    Just my two cents worth, and you can keep the change. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *