Student Teaches Instructor

I was just asking about Jason Niebuhr a few weeks ago. Today I see there is an article in the local newspaper describing Jason’s success as a computer repair business person. (Part One of the article. Part Two of the article) Jason is a student I had the first year I began teaching. He is totally blind. Using headphones and a program named JAWS, he would listen to the computer and my lectures at the same time.  A common adage is that teachers learn more than their students and Jason taught me a lot!

He showed me how to use the resources you have no matter what. He made me very aware that there’s more to teaching than just showing a PowerPoint to a group of people. Even though I am a strong visual learner I understood that different people learn different ways. However, Jason made me really apply this concept showing me how we all learn through multiple channels. Whenever I presented something that was only visual Jason would immediately ask me what  was there. It didn’t take me long to figure out how important the multi-channel teaching is and to include an auditory channel in everything I presented. (Because of JAWS I could easily do this using text on a web page. It didn’t mean I had to be talking all the time.)

But, all of these are common lessons. I learned something even more important from Jason.  A lesson about judgment.  I remember a particular conversation when several teachers were talking together about Jason’s chances for success. "How will he be able to tell which wire is hot?"  one teacher asked.  (Being blind, Jason can’t discern the difference between a red, black, or white colored-coded wires.) "How will he keep from being electrocuted? What if he reaches in and touches one of those capacitors!" another exclaimed. I don’t remember my exact response but I vaguely remember either agreeing with the group or remaining silent. I know I did not speak up for Jason’s abilities.

A few years later I had another student. He had stopped taking his medications and had become very paranoid. His behavior toward faculty and other students became rude and aggressive. Again, we all agreed that even though he had extremely high grades, his behavior would exclude him from having any job that we could think of. After a few traumatic semesters (for the student as well as for faculty!) he got his medications in balance again, finished his degree with an A+ average, and is now working as a successful software engineer.

It’s difficult writing about our judgments as teachers. We aren’t supposed to do that. And it is the success of Jason Niebuhr as well as many other students who have taught me a very important lesson: I can never know when the passion and personal perseverance of a student will help him or her overcome all odds (and judgment calls). And, the next time I hear folks forecasting someone’s future as bleak and hopeless, I know I will speak up and offer these two very good examples of people who surprised us and created their own success.

Congratulations Jason and thanks for teaching me some very important lessons!

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