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When Students Reflect, We Are Affirmed, Inspired & Challenged

As we are all aware, reflection is one of the most powerful aspects of learning - especially lifelong and transformational learning. When we are able to connect past and current experiences or knowledge to our overall life’s work and direction, it is both empowering and enlightening.
Recently, I received a tremendous message via social media from a former student named Stephanie who is 10 years out of high school. She was thanking me for the learning experiences she had and how they have impacted her education, career and life.
Naturally, it’s tremendously rewarding for educators to receive these types of messages, especially after time has lapsed. I have been very fortunate to have many of these great experiences with former students who are kind enough to contact me and share their reflections. I am blessed to have taught in very student voice and choice oriented environments such as high school journalism/media, students activities/leadership and small school principal.
But even more important than the affirmation and ego stroking, there were two very significant thoughts for me as an educator. One, she was demonstrating that she was indeed a lifelong learner capable of powerful reflection. Two, she was able to articulate in very real and applicable terms what students need as students, what they’ll apply as graduates and what they’ll remember as adults.
Naturally, I wrote Stephanie a very nice thank you for her kind words and for her taking the time to contact me.  But I also want to thank her for reminding me, and hopefully others, why we do what we do. Here are a few of those reminders:
One of Stephanie’s first observations or admissions was that while in high school she “was very shy, wasn’t fond of meeting new people or excited to participate in anything that required me to be in the spotlight.” Stephanie added that “a few of my teachers helped me get more comfortable being front and center, but it wasn’t until I took YOUR leadership class that I began to really break out of my comfort zone.”
First of all, I appreciate Stephanie’s compliment and sentiment. But I’m also the first to admit that she’ giving me way too much credit.  However, what she did remind me of is about one of the core foundations of teaching and education.  And that is that education is supposed to transform. That’s right.  It’s supposed to change people - and change in very dramatic and powerful ways.  Ultimately it should empower us right? Students come to our classes, programs and schools - and they should leave different people. They should leave feeling far more empowered, enlightened and connected - i.e. transformed.
Next Stephanie said, “You helped shape my character and discover leadership skills I never knew I had. Your class has taught me to think outside the box, see everyone for who they are, not what they are, and to be more compassionate. I was taught how to lead projects, speak to businesses as we asked for donations, and more importantly work as a team.”
Stephanie articulated 10 years out that she was able to acquire new skills that indeed shaped her experiences, thinking and overall abilities. Her skills had been enhanced. Or maybe these skills were exposed. We often talk about 21st century competencies - the Four C’s and more. But what students need are relevant, significant and varied opportunities to acquire, apply and advance these skills. We talk about all of the skills students need, but what amazing testimonial it is when they reflect and tell you what they learned, what was significant and how things impacted them. There is a huge shift in education now where we are focused more on skills vs. content more than ever. Indeed, many of these skills are these soft skills that most experts agree are now integral to success for our students in the new global economy.  But how will these students get and improve these skills? It will up to us to provide the repeated and relevant learning opportunities for all students to have the appropriate experiences to ignite and enhance these important skills.
I, like many of us, have often talked about what I learned in school and what I used throughout my real life. In many instances, there is direct link or connection. But there is also another side where much of what myself, and I can assume most of us, learned was never used or applied. That’s right. When we reflect upon our learning, what did we actually use in life or apply? It’s a gauge, or assessment if you will, that most of us are attracted to, but also not completely sure how to connect to the daily work of our profession.
Stephanie wrote, “Taking your class has helped me so much in my career. After graduating, I used my skills to get more involved in the community. I was the youth group coordinator at my church for 7 years, program manager assistant for Fresno County Office of Education for their migrant summer schools and I taught 2nd grade for 2 years before relocating last year. No matter what age group I worked with, I incorporated so much of what I learned from your class to my curriculum. I was hoping to build future leaders and help students discover their very own leadership skill, just like you have helped me.
What Stephanie’s words meant to me was that we had done in those leadership classes was able to be applied. Although it was maybe not viewed as academic as maybe math, science or other core subjects, it had passed my ultimate assessment. Students were able to apply what they learned, what skills they had acquired and what experiences they had to their real world lives and careers. They were able to make their daily professional and personal lives richer and more impactful. They were able to look at their individual situations through a broader lens. They were able to continually ask relevant and significant questions, while providing many diverse and creative solutions. Their learning had meaning because they were using it - applying it to their lives.
Thank you again Stephanie for the tremendously kind words. Thank you for sharing your 10-year reflective journey and inspiring me to continue to reflect. Students learn, but educators learn too right? If both students and educators are on journeys of lifelong learning, then we can call what we do a success. Transformation, Skills and Application - thank you Stephanie. I am honored to have worked with you.

(photos courtesy of Buchanan High School Leadership Classes)


  1. Mike,

    Powerful interaction with a former student. The purpose of our work is to empower others so they may transform themselves and our world. Well done my friend.


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