We’ve all heard stories about great teachers who have changed students’ lives. Far less common are stories from teachers about students who have changed their lives, yet anybody in the teaching profession knows that learning is a reciprocal activity that can have a profound impact on both members of the exchange.
Just as there are some teachers who go above and beyond to help students attain exceptional learning results, there are also some students who—whether because of their courage, perseverance, willingness to take risks, or some unique combination of experiences and insights—have a powerful impact on a class and leave a memorable trace on a teacher’s life.
Here are two stories of great students who taught me invaluable lessons that I carry with me to this day.
The Student Who Taught Me to Listen Before I Speak
Anna, a second-year student in my class, “Tycoons, Tyrants, and Tortured Souls in Russian Literature,” came to my office, visibly shaken.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“It’s your class, Professor Kaufman,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “It’s rocking my world view, and like, not in a good way.”
“What do you mean?”
“Before I took this class, I thought I knew what I believed. Now I don’t know. Everything’s confused. My parents want me to be an economics major because that’ll get a job later. But I want to study literature. And after thinking about the accursed questions, ‘Who am I? Why am I here?’ I just don’t know anymore. I don’t have any good answers,” she sighed.
“Well, of course, you know who you are and why you’re here. It sounds like your real passion is literature, not economics. Your parents just want the best for you, but it’s your life and you should follow your passion, Anna!” These are the words I almost spoke to Anna, the words I desperately wanted to say to her, thinking they will ease her suffering and point her in the right direction.
Yet, in that moment, they seemed somehow false. They were meant, I now sense, to ease my discomfort, not Anna’s. They were my anxious effort to fix her problem, to make it all better for her—and for me.
But Anna taught me something important—not so much through her words, as through her earnest searching passion, her vulnerability, her courage in grappling with her confusion in my presence. She taught me to keep my mouth shut and instead to listen and hold the space for her to come to her own answers.
Oh, how I wanted to speak. With great effort, I held myself back, maintaining eye contact, remaining curious and supportive. For perhaps the very first time in my career as a teacher, I just sat there and listened, with my head and my heart, to what a student’s soul was struggling to say to her.
And then an amazing thing happened. Anna began to feel calmer and more grounded as she came to a resolution: She still didn’t know the answer to her dilemma but she was no longer afraid of not knowing. She was okay with the questions themselves.
Thanking me for the insight and clarity she’s gained from our conversation, she got up and left. Yet I hardly said a word the entire time.
College teachers are so used to speaking and presenting and explaining and arguing that we sometimes forget the power of simply remaining present and listening.
On that day, however, Anna taught me a valuable lesson: how to be less like an “expert” and more like the acquaintance” described by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist in his essay, “On the Gradual Production of Thought Whilst Speaking.” “My dear thoughtful friend,” advises the narrator:
“If there is something you want to know without being able to find it out through meditation, turn to any acquaintance you run into and talk about the matter. There is no need for him to be a sharp mind. Also, I do not mean to say that you should ask him about this matter. Oh, no, never! Rather, you should tell him the solution yourself!”
The Student Who Taught Me I’m Not the Only Expert in the Room
This is a hard lesson for a college professor to learn. After all those grueling years of graduate training and academic hoop-jumping followed by many more years of publishing or perishing and continually feeling the need to prove yourself to skeptical colleagues, it’s no wonder that once a professor has finally “made it,” he would covetously guard that special status as an expert attained at such cost.
And yet when Josh signed up for Books Behind Bars: Life, Literature, and Leadership a few years ago, my class in which university students and correctional center students meet to have life-changing discussions through the lens of Russian literature, I had to let go of the presumption that I was the only expert in the room. True, I had more knowledge of Russian literature than he did, but in the context of this particular class, Josh knew something that I did not—nor ever could.
Josh, you see, had been incarcerated at the very juvenile correctional center where Books Behind Bars had been offered for many years before the course was offered at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center.
I’ll never forget the day he shared his interpretation of Ivan Turgenev’s story, “Living Relic,” about a young peasant woman who was paralyzed by a terrible disease and left by her master to rot away a ramshackle hut on the edges of the estate.
“When I was reading about her experience,” Josh said, “it was exactly like what I went through in solitary.”
The class gasped in silence. This is the first time they learned that one of their UVa classmates has come from the very correctional world into which they would soon be entering. “This is what it feels like to be deprived of everything that gives you your identity,” Josh continued.
Assumptions began falling apart, stereotypes crumbling, minds working hard—my own included—to try to make sense of this fascinating, original, and completely unexpected interpretation of Turgenev’s story.
Josh unwittingly taught me a profound lesson that day: that when it comes to literary interpretation, there is always another perspective, a fresh insight, a powerful connection that hasn’t been made before.
I am not the only expert in the room.
Later in the semester, there was another moment that demonstrated to me the importance of stepping aside and letting the student voice be primary. It was the end of the class at Bon Air Juvenile Correctional Center. We are all sitting at our tables in the small library that had been converted into a makeshift classroom. Some of us sat at tables, some on love seats, some on benches. I invited Josh to share what I knew he’d been preparing to say.
He got up and told the room full of correctional center and UVa students what he’s revealed only to his UVa classmates earlier in the semester but in a different way this time. In a quiet, unassuming voice he began telling them he knows they always hear others preaching them to do better, to be better, to make something of their lives. “Well, I’m here to tell you that it’s possible. It’s not BS. But it will be hard, don’t think any differently. But you can do it.”
The correctional center students look at him in confusion. And then, with his voice starting to shake, Josh told them why he’s saying all this. “Because,” he paused. “I was you a few years ago. I was a resident at Beaumont.”
The silence in the room was deafening. Every pair of eyes is focused on Josh in that moment. He was not just a UVa student; he was also one of them.
From that point on, Josh became the Bon Air students’ go-to person for uplifting pep talks, for questions about how to make the transition from life behind bars to college, even for questions about Russian literature! It was a joy to watch. I gladly stepped aside, ceding authority to Josh. Every day before and after class there would be a small line of students wanting to talk to Josh. He became something of a celebrity, a wise elder, a respected teacher.
I could not pretend to understand what Josh understood. When it came to many matters that were important to the Bon Air students, I did not have the same authority as Josh. And it would have rung false if I were the one to try to communicate to them the message of hope and perseverance. But from Josh’s lips, this message resounded loud and clear and, I’m told, had a powerful and lasting impact on many of the correctional center students.
What I learned that semester is but one example of a lesson that I always try to remember every time I stand before a classroom: I am not the only expert in the room, and I must teach in a way that honors this reality. Josh taught me that, as a teacher, I must always strive to foster a community of equals where the insights of every person in the room are celebrated, where every student has the potential to become a teacher and every teacher a student.