The Best Lessons Come When We Least Expect It

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It’s cold. It’s raining. I’m wearing a sweater as I write this, yet it’s late May and the “countdown” is on. Here at Downers Grove North High School, we officially have two days of instruction and three days of finals left before we can turn off our alarms and turn on the relaxation for a few months.

It’s at this time of the year that I always write some sort of year-end blog post. Typically I wait for that right moment of inspiration to drive me to the keyboard, and that moment happened just this past Friday on our seniors’ last day of classes.

It was like any other last day for the seniors, with former students randomly popping in to say “thank you” and “goodbye.” It really is a lovely and bittersweet day. And then a timid knock quietly reverberated from my door.

I finished typing a sentence and looked up to see Robert. A quiet and, on the surface, mostly disinterested student when I taught him as a freshman, he was the last student I expected to visit. After we chatted for a bit and he turned to leave my classroom, I knew what my year-end blog post would be.

Some of the best lessons come from some of the most unexpected moments in teaching in the form of small gifts from the students we teach. In short, this post is a thank you to my students for teaching me so much more than I could ever teach them.

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Disposition Isn’t Always an Observable Trait

This lesson comes directly from Robert. When in my class as a freshman, he seemed disconnected. Often, one could find Robert and me out in the hallway having a one-on-one chat about his missing yet another deadline.

At the conclusion of that school year, Robert made the choice to remove himself from our honors program as a sophomore, moving down to our college prep level. As I reflected on that year-end at that moment, I felt like I failed him — that I was unable to really ever crack through and get him to “get it.” Yet here he was, choosing to visit me on his last day of high school to say thank you and to tell me how much he enjoyed my class.

As an extrovert who loved school, I tend to judge if a student is enjoying or has enjoyed my class based on their observable disposition. So thank you, Robert, for teaching me that disposition towards a class or a teacher isn’t always observable.

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“Ok” Doesn’t Always Mean Okay

We crossed paths in the hall a few years ago, which was a few years after I taught her in my class. “Hi, Sammi,” I said, “How are you?” With a slight smile and downtrodden reply, she said, “Okay, thanks.”

These sorts of exchanges are commonplace in the halls of a school and throughout society. However, there was something about that specific moment that just didn’t feel right. After about an hour, Sammi’s response still wasn’t sitting right, so I decided to send her an email to follow up.

It turns out, my gut was right. She came to my office the next day and broke down in tears with all the emotional and mental stress with which she was struggling. We talked through some things, and for the next six months, Sammi would come to my office once or twice a week — whenever she needed to — for a quiet place to write (writing helped her navigate all her struggles). After her graduation, she came back from college to visit me. Today she is a confident, healthy, thriving young woman.

This interaction with Sammi got me thinking about how many times a day I pass someone and ask them, “How are you?” without even thinking about their response. So, thank you, Sammi, for helping me understand that “ok” doesn’t always mean okay.

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Happiness Doesn’t Cost a Thing

Maria had quite a story. She was having a tough year personally. Her parents filed for divorce in the same year her older sister (who is also her best friend) went away to college and her grandfather (whom she adored), slowly lost his battle with cancer and passed away after months of late-night hospital visits. Needless to say, it wouldn’t have been an easy year for anyone, let alone a 15-year-old. And yet, every day she’d come to class with a smile and infectious laughter. Whenever I would play music during work time or before and after class, Maria would sing along with a carefree vibrance.

Needless to say, she found happiness where she could. If a 15-year-old can do that, can’t we all?  So, thank you, Maria, for teaching me that happiness doesn’t cost a thing.

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Gratitude Makes Others Smile

“Thank you, Mr. Bronke.” Every day this year, as my students left class, Johnny would passionately utter these four simple words. And without fail, every single time, regardless of how wonderfully or woefully class had just gone, I would smile. He didn’t say these words because he felt he should. Nor was it his way of “sucking up.” Instead, Johnny truly was appreciative and wanted to share that.

It really got me thinking about how many little things happen during the week for which I probably could, but don’t take the extra five seconds, to say “thank you.” Johnny, thank YOU for always saying thank you, and for teaching me the power of gratitude.

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I could go on and on, as the more I think about what my students have taught me, the more lessons I uncover. As you head into the last few weeks of school — or into your summer break — and begin reflecting on the past year, ask yourself not only what did you teach your students this year, but what did your students teach you?

Is there a small lesson that stands out for you right now? Share it in the comments below so we can all learn together from the amazing students we teach.

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Christopher Bronke is a ninth grade honors English teacher and Department Chair at Downers Grove North High School in Illinois. He evaluates teachers, oversees the literacy coaching program, plans and implements professional learning, and works with district leaders on CCSS integration, implementation, common assessments, and rubrics. Christopher is an innovative literacy leader who has experience with CCSS integration across content areas, blogging to empower teacher voice, collaborative and teacher leadership, literacy leadership, and social media in the classroom. He was a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council, a Community Manager and Innovation Coach for the Redesign Challenge, Community Manager Lead for Sevenzo, and he currently serves on the Executive Committee as a member-at-large for the Conference on English Leadership. Christopher has served on several Executive Planning Committees for national and regional ECET2 convenings, and is a Co-Founder, Director, and Writing Coach for the National Blogging Collaborative, a non-profit organization that cultivates and supports the capacity of all educators to use their unique voice to elevate the craft of teaching and learning. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @MrBronke.

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