Inspiring students and equipping them with skills to “do life” (which can be unpredictable and harsh) opens up future opportunities.
Educator, Branson Junior High
In 2012, I made what felt like a scary decision my first year as a high school biology teacher. I decided that inspiring hope in students needed to be prioritized alongside learning. I determined that for me to unleash young people to see and fulfill their potential, they needed to first know their worth as people, above all else.
I didn’t come to this decision lightly. I was compelled to make it after weeks of encountering discouraged and disengaged learners. I was left wondering why a lack of motivation was so prevalent.
That was until it became clear that the missing piece was hope. They needed support in overcoming the limiting stories they had told themselves (and been told too often by society) about what was possible in their lives. I cared too much to let textbooks and tests dictate how I would show up as an educator: my students’ humanity deserved my full attention.
What I didn’t foresee was how much my students would inspire me and help me discover what we, as educators, have been missing all along—too much instructing and not enough asking, listening, and creating space for healing.
Integrating Inspiration Sessions
The first place I started was in my sixth hour, where I began dedicating 30 minutes each week to giving inspiration to my students. I attempted to reach a room full of unmotivated young people with a simple question: “Where do you want to be in 10 years?”
The first time students heard this, the question was met with blank stares. To me, their silence signaled either a lack of clarity around the dreams they held or a fear they would give the “wrong” answer—or both. I was sure my years of training had prepared me for this. But, as I started the conversation with them, I discovered this was different.
It turns out the root cause of the hush in the room was not a lack of clarity on the question but rather the absence of any dreams—at least, not any they could articulate. When the reality of this hit me, I found it profoundly troubling. So, I dug in, starting with John.
John had “I don’t care about anything and you’re not going to change that” written all over his face. As we talked, his responses revealed where his dreaming was stifled. He had regrets, but they were not his own. They were his dad’s.
If you’re going to guide young people in a truly supportive way, you have to start with the truth.
Educator, Branson Junior High
His dad was sometimes very loving, but other times, he was very drunk and hurtful. He had continually told John that he was worthless. It only stopped when John’s dad decided to leave the family.
After hearing John’s story, I knew it was more important for me to know John’s heart than to force him to engage in a biology lesson.
We would get to the content later, but in that moment, I recognized that cultivating John’s and all my other students’ humanity was a fundamental building block in guiding them as an educator. Without that support, they would struggle to find the confidence to look within and find their unique purpose.
And, if you’re going to guide young people in a truly supportive way, you have to start with the truth. The phrase I adopted was, “I don’t think you understand how important you are.” I expressed to John and the rest of my students that they mattered, possessed unique gifts, and had a unique purpose in this world. I believed that, and they started to as well. But, it wasn’t easy.
I saw that the voices of doubt in their heads were overpowering their “hopeful” instincts. And, just like a great athlete in the pursuit of perfecting their craft, I began seeing “intentional thinking” as a skill young people (and adults) needed to learn and consistently practiced. I think we are naturally born not knowing how to fight self-doubt, and many times, circumstances outside our control make those thoughts louder and louder until they are the only thoughts we hear. My goal was to quiet the doubt.
Quieting the Doubt
After asking about my students’ dreams and receiving blank stares, I immediately shifted my 30-minute inspiration sessions and organized a compilation of videos featuring experts like Brené Brown and Patrick Lencioni who spoke about the importance of being connected, why showing vulnerability is not weakness, and having an innate sense of hunger to learn, grow, and seek out new opportunities.
I followed up each compilation with self-discovery questions and a group discussion. I would also share four inspirational quotes and invite the young people to choose one and articulate why it spoke to them. I continue using this structure today.
I call the inspirational quotes Power Tools. I give Power Tools like:
- “Everyone is crucial.”
- “Most scientists died not knowing they have contributed to our world.”
- “Don’t look to people to tell you that you matter because people will tell you that you don’t.”
- “You will change this world (in your own way).”
I tell my students that they can go through life with “butter knife” tools, or they can go through life with Power Tools that cut through the noise and enable them to find clarity and perspective. And, it is their choice to find the words that inspire them along their path (even better if those words are their own).
These sessions really empower learners to open up. They begin asking their own questions like:
- “Can everyone’s story be significant?”
- “Do other people feel the same way that I feel?”
- “Can unpacking my painful past help me find healing?”
Through this exploration, they discover they are wiser (and more resilient) than they knew. Every time, as my students engage in these sessions, a shift occurs right before my eyes. Not only do they inspire each other, but they inspire me and discover their hope.
During my first year, the impact of these sessions was particularly evident with John. With time, he started to believe he wasn’t who his dad had said he was. And, that it was in his power to choose what he believed about himself. He gained the confidence to shape a vision for his future he hadn’t previously believed was possible. He slowly awakened and started to engage himself in his education, particularly in math where he ultimately found his passion. It’s a passion he’s applying to his career in the restaurant industry, today.
Two years ago, during a chance encounter, John (now 25 years old) expressed that he wished he had learned earlier in his life that becoming a father to his daughter and having a family was a future he had the agency to imagine and create. Though, now that this created future is here, he’s grateful for the journey of discovering his inherent power to fulfill his potential. That has stayed with me.
Acknowledging Hopelessness isn’t Always Visible
Students like John who are visibly disengaged and disinterested make it easier to wonder, “What’s missing?” But, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years conducting my inspiration sessions is that hopelessness can be just as present in students who appear deeply engaged in their academic work.
Wyle, whose family is full of acclaimed scientists, was the sharpest and most considerate kid I had ever had in class. I was deeply aware that I was teaching a 12-year-old world changer. And, many times, he was teaching me about science (and life). He would secretly approach me to correct details I had missed and offer sage words about his compassion for the world around him.
But, during an inspiration session where Wyle and his peers were prompted with the question, “Do you think you matter?” Wyle responded, “No.” I was completely surprised. I knew he had greatness within him, but for Wyle, his self-confidence was hiding under the weight of living up to his family’s expectations.
Years later, I found out that I was Wyle’s favorite science teacher because I had helped him understand his value, which fueled his learning and innate love of science. I felt honored.
The juxtaposition between John’s and Wyle’s outward appearance and the similarity of their internal experience taught me never to assume which students do and don’t need inspiration. Rather, as educators, I believe we should provide it no matter the child in front of us.
Inspiring students and equipping them with skills to “do life” (which can be unpredictable and harsh) opens up future opportunities. It enables them to see their unique place in the world and shape lifepaths based on their unique vision for their future—rather than the vision someone else says they should live into.
Honoring Young People’s Wisdom
For years now, I have made inspiring learners my number one priority. In the beginning, I found it very difficult. But, when I started seeing the magic happen where my students began locating their voice, slowly silencing self-doubt, connecting on a deeper level with their interests, and growing into the type of people capable of establishing an internal (and renewable) reservoir of inspiration, I knew I was never going to stop.
All of this has convinced me that intentional inspiration accelerates the learning and discovery process. W. Edwards Deming says, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” I found that when I took time to inspire the soul, in a way that was intentionally integrated into the pace of our week, kids were more engaged in their learning and more willing to embrace life as a winding journey.
Amongst the many lessons I’ve learned from this work, two things stand out to me. One, compassion comes naturally to learners. You don’t need to build it; rather, you need to cultivate what is already there by creating the space for compassion to come to the surface. It’s an amazing byproduct of inspiring learners that their life and unique story matters.
The second is how much this work to inspire students results in me, as the educator, being inspired. As I lead weekly inspiration sessions, I always find myself moved by the inquiries and discussions.
To that end, I want to leave you with some words of encouragement—ideas and insights my learners have discovered for themselves, which I hope will continue to inspire them (and maybe others):
- “My meaning of living forever is having people remember me. That all goes away if I’m silent. If you can’t speak up about how you want your life to be, that’s the moment your life is over.”
- “Every expert started as a beginner. Every time I get mad or feel unworthy because [I think] someone is better than me, I can do one of two things. Either I can throw whatever I’m working on away because I know it’s not any good, or I can remind myself that someone felt the same way as me at some point along their journey.”
- “What you do is significant. Everything we do is significant to someone. For me, it’s writing and drawing, so I just have to remember that somewhere and someday, what I create will make someone happy.”
George Washington Carver said, “Without vision, there is no hope.” Inspiration is casting vision. Students need inspiration in order to have a vision for the impact they can make in their own lives and the lives of others as they embark on an often daunting and evolving educational journey. But most importantly, students need inspiration in order to discover that this world needs their hope, creativity, and vision to thrive.
I soon discovered that these inspirational lessons sparked the passion, learning, and confidence of young people from all backgrounds, not just those whose life circumstances made it harder to hope. And, hope, like young people’s possibility, is boundless. The question is: How do we, as educators and caring adults, purposefully and consistently guide young people to tap into and share their hope with others?