Actively Listening to Life


by Suzanne Reisler Litwin

Many, many years ago I met an incredible Professor.   I was completing my graduate studies at Concordia University. My goal was to complete my Master’s Degree in Educational Technology in 3 years. At the time, the Chair of the Education department and program was Dr. Richard Schmid‎. He was also an instructor for some of the courses I was taking and my thesis advisor.

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The best part about Dr. Schmid was that he was very young and super smart. He completed his Ph.D. at 25 years of age.

We’ve lost touch since I graduated. Perhaps this was a good thing as the department was very happy to see the back of me! I think I overstayed my welcome.

Let me explain.  My goal was to complete this degree in 3 years. The end result was it took me 7 years!  The maximum time allotted for completing this degree is 5 years. Add my two maternity leave years and you get 7 years of study. I still don’t know how I did it.

When I first met Dr. Schmid, I had just finished my Bachelor of Education degree from McGill University. I thought I was so smart! I thought that being a teacher entitled me for direct entrance into the world of academia. I was a newly licensed teacher, teaching computer science at a chic private girl’s high school. I thought I was so, so, so smart!

Once I entered the graduate program at Concordia, Dr. Schmid did a good job of quickly putting me in my place. He had a way of saying the truth without hurting anyone. So, here I was all bushy tailed and excited to conquer my graduate studies.

Reality set in when I nearly bombed my first graduate course‎. He said, “Under-grads think they know everything. Grads think they know quite a bit. It’s the Profs who realize that we hardly know anything.” Now, I was starting to smarten up and listen better.

I think Dr. Schmid taught me more about life and the world than the subject matter he taught in class‎. After class, some students would meet in his office and discuss post class topics of importance. A huge change in my learning started to develop. I became an “active listener.” The truth was I couldn’t participate in the conversations because the topics were way too sophisticated and detailed for me. All I could do was listen, actively listen.

My eyes and ears would follow the talking heads to the point that I felt I was watching a tennis match. I was in the game as a participating spectator. When I would leave his office with the other students, my head was filled with concepts, wisdom, and ideas. I was overflowing with new knowledge.

It was true, in time I realized that I didn’t know very much. Actually, I hardly knew anything at all. Here I was pursuing higher education and learning that I hardly knew anything.

In the years to follow, I stuck to the course of study, although I wanted to quit many times. I had two years of part-time study under my belt when I gave birth to my daughter.  Another 2 years of part time study and I gave birth to my son. Exhaustion continued and I wanted to stop sooooo badly. My Mother kept encouraging me to continue. She said, “In life, they can take everything away from you, but they can’t take your education.” I didn’t know how true that was, but it kept me going until the end.

During my 6th year of study, Dr. Schmid advised me that I had to finish before the end of the 7th year. The department had to make room for new students to enter the program. So, I quit my teaching job and buckled down to complete the last 4 courses and my thesis. One full-time year of study ensued and it was done.

The day I defended my thesis was a day I will never forget. I had my family there and the evaluating Professors.  Approximately, 2 hours later with bagels and party sandwiches and 5 signatures in my thesis book, I was done. I was a graduate! I was also a teacher and a mother of two children who were 5 and 3.

The most important lessons I learned from my graduate studies didn’t always stem from the academic courses and curriculum.  I learned about life and how to be a good teacher.  I learned that teachers have the power to make a difference.  This is a delicate responsibility.  Teachers need to make a positive difference in their students. I was lucky, I had a few amazing teachers who influenced me in a positive way.

This is what I learned:

  • Active listening is the best way to learn anything. Get involved by listening and viewing people. Really invest in listening well.
  • Teaching course content is important, but focused delivery‎, compassion, interest in your students’ achievement, and the love of teaching is more valuable.
  • Teachers who teach about life within the content are the best teachers there are.
  • Listen to what your students say. They will tell you what they need without even saying so. Look at them and invest in their success.
  • Be that amazing teacher, the real person who makes a positive difference in a student’s life. They will always remember you.
  • As parents, friends, and family, we are always teaching each other. Listen well to others.
  • As teachers and parents, we have a huge responsibility to bring about positive change. We have the power to connect, send useful messages, and sculpt the future of our students. This is a HUGE responsibility, take it seriously, daily.
  • Students look up to you. Whether you are teaching adults or pre-kindergarten children, they all look up to you for hope, guidance and lessons.
  • Great teachers make a difference, in part by listening to their students.
  • The love of learning is a daily experience. Allow it to come to you and share your knowledge and passion with everyone. Everyone can teach something. Share it.


On a final note, when I was 23 I taught my first grade 7 high school class.  Today, I am still friends with those students.  They are in their early 40’s and some have children of their own.  I feel like the grandmother of their children.  My greatest pride is when they tell my children that I was their favorite teacher.  What comes around in teaching, goes around in life.

Suzanne Reisler Litwin is an instructor at Concordia University in The Centre for Continuing Education – Communications Department. She is a writing instructor at The Cummings Centre. She writes a weekly column in The Suburban Newspaper and at the West Island Blog. Suzanne is a freelance contributor to The Suburban Newspaper, West island Blog, Wise Women Canada, The Metropolitain, and Women on the Fence. She is the author of the children’s book, The Black Velvet Jacket. Visit to read more of her published articles, books, and poetry.