This entry is from February 2011, just as the previous one was.
"Light Bulb" vs. "Wow" Moments
While reading applications as our department attempts to fill two mid-year openings, I noticed that nearly every applicant answered the question about what the most rewarding thing is about being a teacher in almost the same way. The response was commonly about the "light bulb moment"-- when a student realizes something that he or she had never understood up until that point. I don't think there is necessarily anything bad about this answer. In fact, that was the answer I gave when I applied. But now I realize that it is the wrong answer. The most rewarding part of teaching is not the moment when the kid "gets it" and suddenly understands a never-before-understood concept-- and it shouldn't be. After all, isn't that my job, to make kids understand things they didn't understand before? Could the biggest reward in my career field be doing what I'm supposed to do? Teachers need to have high expectations for students, but this "light bulb moment" response implies that expectations are rather low if these moments are so gratifying. But I don't fault people who gave that answer, or my seven-years-ago self, because it is only with years of experience that I realized what the right answer is, at least for me-- and it's something that I see and hear my son do almost on a daily basis.
The most rewarding thing for me as a teacher is when a student says something that I've never before had a student point out during a discussion of literature-- when he or she comes up with something that I, after having read the text we are dealing with so many times, had never considered before. These instances are pretty rare, but they fill me with a remarkable and perhaps un-nameable feeling. It isn't pride, because I (probably) had nothing to do with whatever the student said, but it's close. Maybe the best way to describe these instances is by calling them "wow moments," as in, "Wow, I'd never thought of it that way before..." "Wow moments" are more rewarding to me than "light bulb moments" because they can't be anticipated. I should and do start a poetry lesson saying, "All of these kids will understand slant rime (which they'd never heard of before until that day) by the time we are done discussing it" but it would be silly to expect all of them to analyze or interpret the poem in a way that neither I nor any of the other students in the room, let alone any of the other students I've ever had in the past, had ever conceived of.
These moments also occur in the parenting side of my life-- except that I can expect my son to wow me each and every day. On a Monday he's calling one of his creations that that he brought home from pre-school (a brown construction paper animal on a stick) a "teddy bear," but suddenly two days later he pointed to it and correctly called it a "gwoun-hog." Of course he heard the correct term from his mom and I and at pre-school, but it was his unprompted switch in that moment to the proper term that wowed me. Yesterday he picked up a toy-- a girl wearing pink cowboy attire (the kid loves horses)-- and came up with "hat boy"-- pretty close to "cowboy," and little off on the gender, but a "wow moment" just the same. But my favorite "wow moment," surpassing all of the amazing ones that I've experienced as a teacher, happened on Friday, when, before I could ask him my routine question of, "What happened at school today?" he offered this up as we pulled out of the parking lot: "Dah-dee, I play choo choo game at school." It was the first time he prompted the sharing of his day, and one of the first times that the initial share wasn't about nap or snack. (Not that those things aren't important!) He's becoming, as I've said before, a "small man," and I have the pleasure of being there and sharing in the "wow."