When I was in graduate school, Stephen Brookfield’s book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher was required reading. His message spoke to me. I was drawn to his ideas about figuring out who I am as a teacher. I often think about a story he shared describing a student who sat in the back of the class, arms folded looking uninterested and disengaged. Brookfield was thrown off and spent some time trying to get through to him, to no avail. Later that day that same student turned out to be the driver assigned to take Brookfield to the airport.
The author was surprised when the student shared how meaningful Brookfield’s message was to him. In spite of nearly insurmountable challenges, that student had managed to stay in college. It was not lack of interest, but lack of sleep that caused the disinterested appearance. Had they not run into one another, Brookfield would have had no idea of the impact he had on that young man.
A few semesters later, I had a student who sat in the back of the room on his computer through most of the semester. Now and then he would look up and answer a question just to show me that he was listening, but I believed he really wasn’t; at least that’s what I thought. One day, at the end of the semester, I let the class out a bit early. As I gathered my things I realized that he was the only student left in the room. He told me that he hadn’t wanted to take my class (no surprise); it was required for his scholarship. In spite of his reluctance however, he said I had made an impact on him. He even acknowledged that it takes a “special talent” in his words, to hold the interest of students who don’t want to be there.
Until that brief moment, I thought he didn’t like me much. He was about the last student from whom I expected kind words, let alone a compliment. I’m ashamed to admit I thought him impatient and entitled. I couldn’t have been more wrong about him. I guess Brookfield was right; we can’t always tell what’s going on with our students based only on what we see. I didn’t really get the message until it happened to me.