Inspiring Students and Aspiring Teachers

A Reflection on the Psychological Life of Learning and Teaching

By Robert McInerney, PhD

Sadly, the psychological life of being a student can be marred by insecurity, doubt, and much worse, anxiety and depression. Students may feel compelled to compare themselves with others and they may feel alone in a crowded classroom. At times, students are overwhelmed, and perhaps apathetic. Grading is always de-grading and students may feel completely defined by academics. I often urge them to resist being grimly enduring and struggling learners, and instead find a way to strive and be actively engaged in their work and the university community; easier said than done I suspect. 

Do we teachers feel the same way? We do when we forget to be collegial, to make friends, or when we are not able to share our desires and interests without the fear of harsh and unnecessary criticism or agonism (see Tannen, 2002). The psychological life of being a teacher can be marred by our insecurities too, of course. When this happens it seems we resort to power; power often involves coercion, manipulation and the pathetic act of malicious backstabbing (hooks, 2010). Conversely, when we feel welcomed, supported and understood by our colleagues, we become empowered (which is a sense of agency even within an oppressive environment). Those teachers who are empowered are confident and kind, and respectful of others. I can say from experience that to be around an empowered colleague is liberating! Power and empowerment then are not the same thing and their difference marks the always potential abyss in our humanity. Dare I say every violent act, every war, has first staggered on the existential margin of power and empowerment.  

What about the environment of teaching and learning? Well, if we understand teaching and learning as only an input and output system, or merely vocational, we will lose its passion. I'm all for a great job or career, but perhaps these will be the byproduct of a transformative education. In part, it is up to students and teachers to find ways to connect with the material being learned and taught. We may access our inspiration (which is the inward turn of our psychological lives) and this will, in turn, foster our aspiration (which is the outward turn of our psychological lives). A crucial part of this development will be the teacher’s presence as a facilitator of verity and wonder (van Manen, 1990). It is at that moment that we wish the student becomes enlivened and finds her or his inspiration. 

Despite what we may have been told, inspiration does not necessarily come before aspiration. One can aspire (seek and hope), without inspiration. As Sartre (1946/2007) tells us, ‘Existence precedes essence!’ In fact, I believe we may go ahead uninspired; we may go through the motions. But please let's talk to each other: commiserate, celebrate, and empathize. At our own pace, we may take part in something that helps us feel more alive. So, for students and teachers alike, my best guess is that when we foster security, freedom of expression, and collegiality, inspiration will come within the beatific confluence of teaching and learning; it will sustain and nurture us. 


Hooks, B. (2010). Teaching critical thinking: Practical wisdom. NY: Routledge.
Sartre, J.P. (2007). Existentialism is a humanism. C. Macomber (Trans). Yale University Press. (Original work published in 1946).
Tannen, D. (2002). Agonism in academic discourse. Journal of Pragmatics, 34 1651-1669.
van Manen, M. (1990). Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy. NY: State University of New York Press