By Bill Madigan, AVID Staff Developer
Cheryl came to me one day and asked for my help. A Special Ed teacher, she was at the end of her rope. Feeling like she was peering into the abyss, she did what many teachers do: justify their frustrations. She achingly shared all that she had done; how long she had tried; how late she had stayed; how many chances she had given, and more.
Then, she described the problem. Derek wouldn’t read more than three pages a night for homework. She did her best to detail his “deficits” as noted in his IEP (Special Ed analysis of his learning “challenges”). I tried not to hear what was wrong with him, and then I heard the voice of Victor Villaseñor belt out: “Dream Big!” Victor is the renowned author of Rain of Gold and many other novels and stories of his Mexican-American family, and I trust his gut responses. This “Dream Big” just popped in my head in the middle of my moment with Cheryl.
I told her to go to Derek and sit down right in front of him, look in his eyes, and say, “I want you to read 30 pages tonight.” I added, “Tell him that you want him to do it for you, and that you will be thinking and worrying about him from now until when you see him tomorrow.” Then, I asked her to help Derek frame the whole endeavor: where he will sit; what he will do if his brother, or mother, or cat interrupts him; what he will say to himself when he gets bored or tired; what to do when he gets hungry etc. I finished by asking her to close out her challenge to him with the most genuine and convincing voice, saying, “I care about you, and I believe in you.”
The next day, Cheryl called me and said that Derek was truant from her period with him, and she wanted me to help find him. We searched and searched. Finally, we found him hiding in a breezeway over the library. He looked dejected, head down, avoiding eye contact. At first, he wouldn’t speak. Finally, he said, “Miss, I couldn’t come to you because I let you down; I only read 27 pages.” Cheryl beamed and hugged him.
Cheryl no longer had the real problem of a boy who wouldn’t read more than a few pages. Now, she had the luxurious problem of showing a boy how amazing he was and how proud she was of him. Moreover, Derek was now gloriously troubled; he now knew that he could do far more than he previously imagined. He no longer had an incapacity that he could easily hide behind. What occurred in all our minds was remarkable, hovering near the miraculous.
So this is inspiration. From the Latin word inspirare: to inflame, blow into, inspiration is a word of passion or deep feeling. Unfortunately, in educational circles, inspiration is used with a sort of distant reverence, and it is hoped for, but never explicitly required. It’s not in the California state standards of the teaching profession, and I’ll hazard to guess that it’s not in any state’s standards for the teaching profession. We have all experienced it; we know it when we feel it, but the concept is vague and seems unteachable. Unlike Cornell Notes, there aren’t 10 easy steps. Yet, inspiration is the WHY we do what we do.
According to the research done recently by Dr. Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, inspiration, or what she calls “admiration of virtue,” is the most ascendant element of motivating a resilient pursuit of greatness. Immordino-Yang says, “Skills are important, but inspiration is more important.” Her work has shown that people in a state of inspiration show activation in many areas of the brain, most notably the medulla and brain stem. What’s remarkable about that is that these areas, which are the most primitive parts of our brain, were thought to have only mechanical functionality: regulating our blood pressure, as well as heart rate, and keeping us breathing while we sleep. Well, it turns out that these areas, which primarily maintain our basic survival, are also “co-opted” when we are experiencing inspiration. Our highest emotional state is connected to, and brought about by, our most primitive nature.
Derek, Cheryl, and I felt the inspiration of WHY we do what we do.
Bill Madigan has been an educator for 25 years. He has taught emotionally disturbed and at-risk students, as well as Advanced Placement® learners. He has also been an AVID coordinator and elective teacher for 18 years. Bill has also been a Staff Developer both privately and with AVID for 18 years, teaching brain based learning, as well as English Language Learner best practices.