Drug addiction. Traumatic childhoods. A paralyzing accident. Natural disaster.
Combine that with humor and basketball or skateboard tricks, and you can make a good living as a teen motivational speaker. Thsi isn’t discounting that survivor stories are often inspirational. There’s no denying that it’s helpful for struggling teens to hear that it’s possible to survive hardships. But as Richardson High School in Texas and the Rio Rancho Public Schools in New Mexico found, these speakers need to better vetted. What are their qualifications and what is their message?
Public schools pay $3500 – $5000 or more per event to bring in motivational speakers to talk to students about overcoming challenges, sex, dating and relationships, and drugs and alcohol. What do these speakers offer that the usual curriculum does not?
As motivational speaker Jeff Yalden explains:
The reality is that we are nothing more than a teacher, but we can get away with a lot more than a teacher can. For example: There are a lot of teachers that have to be careful about how they relate to their teens and how they teach. They have to follow an outline or a syllabus. As a speaker, we have a message that through word of mouth or advertising, someone has thought enough of the message to want us to share this message with their teens.
Note that Yalden doesn’t say qualified or trained. It’s all about the message. Is it inspirational, motivational, cautionary, but most importantly entertaining? Most schools are sensitive to church and state issues that bar speakers from explicitly religious messages. Even if God isn’t mentioned, how does a speaker’s religious beliefs inform her or his message to students? As speaker Justin Lookadoo learned from Richardson High School students with access to websites and social media feeds, the message begins before one arrives on campus. Richardson High School parent, the Rev. Dr. Jaime Clark-Soles, raises questions about Lookadoo that should be asked of all public school speakers:
The issue is that he has not been vetted and credentialed by any professional body to address issues related to child development. If the school wanted to address dating relationships and gender issues, why didn’t it bring in a credentialed professional, such as a licensed counselor or a [pediatrician]?
Other questions that need to be asked: Is $3500-$5000 per event a good use of resources for educating and motivating students? Is there any research on the initial and lasting impact of such speakers? How are speakers vetted and evaluated? How are parents and students informed?