Have you ever held out some bright colored thing in front of a baby? It takes a moment for the baby to notice it. Then it focuses on the thing. It may seem like the baby does it one eye at a time. Then the eyes get wide, wider, so wide you think they will pop out of its head! Its mouth pops open and the baby might even start to quickly open and shuts its mouth making a soft pop, pop, plop, pop... noise and start to drool. At the same time both arms and even both legs are waiving in a seeming random pattern in the general direction of the fascinating new object!
When you remove the object from the babies view it starts to cry. If the object was truly fascinating the baby will not stop crying for several minutes or until you bring the object back into its field of view.
You might see a similar response from a teenage boy (or any human male over a certain age for that matter) when the right woman walks by.
You rarely see a response like that from a college student in class. But, when you do you know that you have witnessed a miracle. Something profound has happened inside that students mind. They have experienced an "Aha!" moment. Usually that means that two or more ideas came together in a totally unexpected way, or they have encountered a fact or idea that has forced a major change in their world view. This kind of experience can be exciting and enabling, or it can be horrifying. But, with luck when you see that look, you are seeing the birth of a self motivated, self educating mind.
You never see exactly the same reaction that the baby gives you. But, you see the same gleam in the eyes and you might see the mouth pop open. I have even seen students reach out as if to grasp the idea out of the air before it got away. (Though that gesture can be confused with an aborted attempt to raise their hand to ask a question or express an objection :-)
When you see that look you know your life has been worth living. You have passed the fire. One more person just may have become a self motivated learner. Just like that baby was before teachers started punishing it for making mistakes.
I had the strangest conversation with a student before class one day. He wasn't in my class, he just sneaked into the lab to use the machines when no one was there. My habit of coming in early messed him up. I made sure he wasn't doing anything he shouldn't be doing and then let him continue to use the machines. He was very interested in learning to program, but had been talked out of taking programming classes. So, he was teaching himself.
I asked why he wasn't taking programming if he was interested in it. He told me that he couldn't learn very well because he had a learning disorder. He said he had ADHD. I said "So what?. First off, ADHD isn't a learning disorder. I have it, and it never stopped me from learning anything." I went on to say "Yeah, it is one hell of a 'going to school' disability' because teachers make it one. But it does not keep you from learning. In fact, it can really help!"
Let me say that again: ADHD is not a learning disability, but it is one hell of a going to school disability. Teachers make it a "going to school" disability. Learning has nothing to do with being liked by teachers, or getting good grades in school. But some idiot has defined it that way and anything that makes school difficult is defined as a learning disorder. This is similar to defining drowning as a breathing disorder.
The next day his mother came in to talk to me. Since her son was eight years old she had been told that he could not learn. She had been told that because he had ADHD he could never do well in school, could never learn very much, and was basically stupid. I assured her that that was not true. In fact, just the opposite was most likely true. People with ADHD are rarely of below average intelligence and are often noted for their creativity. I said that my guess was that the way he was being treated had more to do with his ethnicity (African American) than his ADHD.
I told her that my own experience was that k-12 were torture. College got easier the farther I got into it. I understand that freshman year is often pure hell for people with ADHD, but despite just barely graduating from high school I tested out of freshman year. (Zero correlation between course grades and learning.) In graduate school most of the class work was a breeze, even though the politics nearly killed me. But, I was white and my father and grandfather were college professors.... I got very different treatment than her son did. I am also old enough to have grown up at a time when ADHD behavior was called "boys being boys" and not considered to be a disorder that required correction.
His mother looked me in the eye the way only a mother can and asked "Are you bull shitting me?"
"Ma'am, I would not dare!" I replied.
She smiled, like a tiger, took a deep breath and said "Hmph!" I was very glad I was not the target of that "Hmph!".
I looked at her son and pointed out that "He knows enough about how to use the net to research this on his own. I've watched him. Give him a few days to find some information for you. If I'm bull shitting you, you know where to find me."
I never saw her again. I saw him a couple of days later. He had found a lot of information about ADHD. He had a lot of questions about better ways to find things on the net. By the end of that semester he had educated himself and his mother about ADHD. And, he signed up for programming classes.
Learning that you can do something that you never knew you could do before, that is a powerful experience. Finding out you can do something you have been told that you can not do, that is a liberating experience. Being the one that got to "teach" that person is enough to make me feel that my time spent teaching has not been wasted.
No one ever taught anyone else anything... but sometimes, like a good trail guide, you can roll a rock off the trail that was blocking their way and point them in the direction they need to go, even down a trail they didn't know was there. And, when they get to the top of an unknown hill and look out at a land they never imagined, they just might get that look.