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Inspirational Teachers are rare

Go back to your high school days (secondary school). How many teachers do you remember that have inspired you? I’d bet that you can count them on one hand. If there are more, you may have been very fortunate. In itself the thought is amazing. You could expect teachers to be in the business of inspiration. But they aren’t always. Unfortunately many teachers are (or have become) uninspired and not inspiring. They drag their bodies into class rooms and give the same lecture as they did last year. They are bored with themselves and hurry home when the school bell sounds. They are easily forgotten. And if they are remembered, it’s for their weakness or hilarious conduct. Children see through them and they mock them. But when children meet an inspirational teacher, they cling onto them.
What do inspirational teachers do? A recent research paper by Lamb & Wedell (2013) describes the qualities and the effects of inspirational language teachers. There is nothing spectacular to it. Inspirational teachers are kind and patient. They show attention to the individual learner needs. They encourage and show professional diligence. They have an impressive subject knowledge. Musser e.a. (2013) suggest that teachers need to be connected with peers as collaboration is key. They need to have passion for learning (not for helping students to pass tests) and they need to embrace each pupil as an individual, involving also the community. Moreover teachers need to look at developing strengths, not fixing shortcomings.
I remember one of those teachers, JT. JT was an incredible teacher. He was erudite and humoristic. He was extremely passionate about his subjects. He put much effort in his classes and came up with new things. He gave Latin, Dutch, music. Once he introduced his pupils to the erotic poetry by Juvenalis. This was in a catholic all boys school. Forbidden. But he giggled his way through it. When he was victim of a prank he went with it and added some humor to it. Here was a teacher the pupils could discuss with. He always treated them with respect and the pupils grew through his probing questions. He was eager to share his vast cultural background with anyone who wanted. He got the best out of people and it seemed like it came natural to him. It didn’t seem to cost a lot of trouble. But sometimes you saw how he struggled with certain issues. He was involved. He did not want to convert anyone into anything. But still, he was troubled by the lack of diligence he found in some pupils. And yet, he was never judgmental about that.

Inspirational Leaders

Inspirational teachers are rare. Inspirational leaders are rare too. You know immediately when you meet an inspirational leader or teacher. They are also the kind that you will remember years later and whose advice will guide you even throughout your entire life. You might think of them at odd moments. You might even build a kind of conversation with them. What would he or she have done in my case?
So what does this tell us about leadership? A teacher is also a leader. (S)he stimulates the evolution of people. Children like to work for teachers who trigger them. It’s the same with employees. They like to work for or with leaders that trigger them. Empathy and kindness are important characteristics. As is diligence. Have you ever worked for a lazy leader? That’s just awful. You feel the injustice, especially when you are working like a mule in a treadmill. You feel it when an inspirational leader talks. There’s anergy, passion.
Companies should detect inspirational leaders. They are not always in the leadership positions. They are of great value to a company because people like to work for them. They can create movement. They are bakens of trust. They have the potential to lead a company. Without wanting to go into the nature-nurture discussion, I am convinced there are innate characteristics an inspirational leader has. So forget about developing inspirational leaders. But there are some things you can do to develop inspirational leadership in your company.


Here are some guidelines to develop inspirational leadership

  • Inspiration is contagious. If the chairman and the CEO are inspirational, chances are that the motivation to be inspirational crosses over to others.
  • Screen for inspirational behavior. You can do this directly (observing that behavior) or indirectly (through evaluation). Once you have detected an inspirational leader, work with him.
  • Stimulate leaders to be inspirational. Encourage them. How? By giving them enough latitude. Do not control them. It’s impossible. Inspirational leaders need space, a context in which they can thrive.
  • Foster inspirational leaders. As they are rare, you should hold onto them. Retention measures are appropriate.
  • Help people to channel inspiration. Leaders do not have to be inspirational all the time. But they need to be at the right moments. Inspirational leaders can learn how to switch on their inspiration engine. But they need to switch it off again.
  • Focus on meaningfulness. As most of your leaders will not be inspirational, you need to help the non-inspirational to create meaningfulness whilst being authentic. There is no inspirational mask. So don’t ask managers that cannot inspire to become inspirational. But make sure they contribute to the overall movement.
  • Position inspirational at the right spot at the right time. You can choose to position inspirational leaders in business areas that are in trouble and/or that need development.
  • Help inspirational leaders in areas they do not excel in. Sometimes inspirational leaders tend to delegate too much. They do not check. They assume that people share their passion,. They expect them to be as mature and autonomous as they are. They think everyone takes on responsibility. Inspirational leaders seem to be hit-and-run (I have inspired you, so now it’s your turn). Make sure they stick around to get their hands dirty. They need to show diligence.
  • Beware of the gurus and the divas. Some inspirational leaders develop diva-like features. Help them to stay with their feet on the ground. Give them coaching. Give them feedback. Inspirational leaders are often mavericks. They are difficult to handle. That’s not a problem in itself, but make sure that the value of the inspiration remains greater than the cost of having to manage an inspirational leader.

I admire inspirational teachers. They help to build a future for youngsters. They invest in people more than anyone else. Over the years inspirational teachers might have touched the lives of hundreds of pupils. And yet, they disappear into the anonymity of retirement. Would they know how they live on in the thoughts of the ones they have inspired? I certainly hope so.
Martin Lamb and Martin Wedell (2013). Inspiring English teachers: a comparative study of learner perceptions of inspirational teaching. Leeds, ELT Research Papers 13–03
P. Maureen Musser, Micki M. Caskey, Linda L. Samek, Younghee M. Kim, William L. Greene, Jan Marie Carpenter, and Jay Casbon (2013).  Imagine a Place Where Teaching and Learning Are Inspirational: A Decade of Collected Wisdom From the Field Middle School Journal, March 2013. 

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.


  • Johan Roels says:

    Inspirational Teachers are teachers who live themselves the Creative Interchange Process during their teaching AND discussions with the students. Their discussions are in fact ‘dialogues’, so no debates or win-lose conversations. This means that the goal of their dialogues is to learn. They not only want to teach, although inspirational teachers do have an impressive subject knowledge, they are convinced that they don’t really know everything on the subject. So they are humble and during the dialogue with peers AND students they are not only on the same wave length with them, they are also on the same level. Inspirational Teachers do not place themselves above the students, they are really functioning at their level. This in order to be able to learn themselves! They are truly wise (‘A wise man is a man who knows that he does not know’ – Socrates).
    They provide for the conditions and use/teach the tools of Creative Interchange (CI) in their classes. The conditions are: trust, openness, curiosity, tolerance for ambiguity, connection, creativity, tenacity and understanding/living the value of interdependency. The tools they use are: asking the ‘right’ learning question in a ‘proper’ way, inquiry of the knowledge of the students and advocacy of their knowledge, they are able to read the nonverbal communications sings of their students, they are masters in confirmed paraphrasing, they question deeply if the student has a different mindset than their mindset (this means that he does not defend immediately their own frame of reference), they find positives in what the student says (even if he is surprised by this), he knows how to integrate those differences and they know how to display their mindset and that of the student. Inspirational teachers can reframe the reality, they use analogies and metaphors and are able to create synergistically outcomes. They know the value of repetition and evaluation, and most of all they give a lot of feedback (in their case more positive reinforcement than correction). They are able to change their point of view if they have learned something new themselves and finally they have a huge understanding of what is called Process Awareness.
    In short, they are living Role Models of the Creative Interchange Process (as described in a nutshell in my comment). And by living it, they create inspirational leader, since ‘The [CI] Process IS the Leader’!
    So David, may I ask you to go over your description AND memory of your inspirational teacher JT (BTW I admire his creativity and guts regarding using erotic poetry in a Roman Catholic all boys school in Flanders), and tell me, how does he ‘score’ on the creation of the conditions for and the use of the tools of Creative Interchange?

    • Michael Murray says:

      An extremely important issue, Johan. Indeed, leaders who hold positions of responsibility but do not “breathe into” ( which is what it means to ‘inspire’; breathe meaning, purpose, a sense of mission, a sense of respect, etc. into those whom they seek to lead) may not be defined or described as leaders. They are simply managers and depend, I’m afraid mostly on their positional authority, and the fear it can generate, to get the job done. That is not leadership, in my understanding of the word. Indeed, neither Ghandhi nor King had little, if any, positional authority; but they led (inspired) literally millions of people.
      Your comment on this insightful blog could provide a wonderful stimulus for discussion among a group of people seeking to exercise leadership ( not just managership) as they explore the questions of leaders who have inspired them and how they might go about inspiring those whom they seek to lead. You have provided lots of possibilities for their exploration. Thanks! Mike M

  • David Ducheyne says:

    jT has a 9,5/10.

    • Johan Roels says:

      WOW! This is a tremendous score. You are blessed having had as teacher such a Role Model who truly lived the Creative Interchange Model. I don’t know you personally so what I will write in the next lines is more out of ‘consciousness’ (appreciatively understanding your tweets, blogs etcetera) than ‘awareness’ (having the ‘real’ facts, observations, …). Still I give it a try, using of course my personal Mental Model, my colored glasses if you will.
      My – call it ‘gut’ or ‘intuitive’ – feeling is that you yourself are building a community at your workplace as Chief People Officer that provides for the conditions [needed] for the Creative Interchange Process [to thrive]. On top of that I’m pretty sure that you hand over to your People the ‘tools’ of the Creative Interchange Process. In fact, I have the strong impression that you David are living at Securex my Mission Statement: “Helping People Create an Organization where they Love to Work, Creating their Lives while Making a Living, through consistent use of Creative Interchange’!
      Hoping for a feedback, be it a ‘positive reinforcement’ or a ‘correction’, since I want to learn.

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