When I was a student teacher at West High School in Madison, Wisconsin, I sat in on a bunch of different classrooms, because the principal at that school thought it was very important for me to go around and experience a lot of different teachers that year.
Every teacher that I ever talked to said, "Have you been to Mr. DeWitt's class yet?" And I hadn't. He was one of the last people that I hadn't been to. And they said, "You have to go see his class — he's the most amazing teacher we have. He is our star on our faculty." And so I was so excited. Every teacher said the same thing. I must have had 20 people tell me how great this teacher was. So, you know, in my mind this man was a giant. And I was so excited to go in and see his classroom.
When I walked in, he taught biology and it was kind of a boring class. I was kind of underwhelmed by what he was doing. He was certainly a competent teacher but I didn't see why it was that everyone picked him as this star teacher. He didn't seem particularly passionate. He didn't seem particularly interesting. He wasn't a very impressive man stature-wise. And at the end of the class — there was about five minutes left in the class — and he did a very strange thing. He went around to each person in the room and he whispered something into their ear. And I thought that was very strange, but you could see a noticeable difference in the people as he whispered this in their ear. They perked up, their posture changed. And then the bell rang, but he made it to every single student before he left, before the bell rang.
And when the class was over, I went up to him and asked him, you know, "Mr. DeWitt, what was it that you said to each of those students?" And he said, "Well, I make it a point to say one positive thing to every student each day before they leave class." I sort of stopped for a minute and asked him how long he had been teaching at the school. And he said 28 years. I said, "So for 28 years, you've told every student every day one positive thing about them?" And he said, "Well, for the first two I didn't, but after that I have — so it's been 26 years now."
I was blown away by this. I couldn't believe that someone actually was so committed to their kids, who understood that teaching was so often not about anything else except the kids. There's a funny side note to that, which was that a couple of weeks later, I was still sort of thinking about this man and his classroom. And I wrote him a letter and I just told him that. I dropped it in his mailbox and sort of went on about my day.
And the next morning I was sitting in my office and he came in, sort of a figure in the doorway, and he was crying. He had this letter in his hand and tears, obvious tears coming down his cheeks. And I looked at him and I said — I thought maybe I had offended him with something I had written — so I said, you know, "Mr. DeWitt, what was the problem? You know, what's wrong?" And he said, "I've been teaching here for 28 years and no one has ever told me how good I am." And I said, "I can't believe that because everyone told me how good you were!"
And I think that's a really important lesson that I learned from Mr. DeWitt. We don't as teachers tell each other what we do well enough.