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'Real MVP': A professor gives a shout out to the student who nods along in class

Alexandra Middlewood said the small gesture made her realize why she loved the job.
Alexandra Middlewood
Alexandra Middlewood said the small gesture made her realize why she loved the job.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series from the Hidden Brain team. It features stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.


About 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, political science professor Alexandra Middlewood was facing a daunting task: transitioning from teaching students entirely on Zoom to a hybrid format.

Some of the students would join in person at her classroom at Wichita State University. Others were tiny boxes on her Zoom screen. Middlewood had to make sure both her in-person and virtual students were engaged during her 75-minute lecture, and wore both a mask and a microphone as she spoke. It wasn't easy.

"I was feeling pretty overwhelmed by it all. Pretty overwhelmed by the semester and the circumstances in general," Middlewood remembered.

One Monday, Middlewood was in the middle of lecturing, when one of her students on Zoom told her that the virtual attendees couldn't hear her.

"It turns out the batteries in the microphone were dead. And I had to replace those in the middle of class. And I remember as I was doing it, I just sat there and was like, 'I don't know how I'm going to do this all semester.'"

When she looked up from changing the batteries, she saw a room full of masked faces. It felt hard for her to know if any of them were actually engaged with what she was saying. But as she continued her lecture, she noticed a student nodding his head. The student was wearing a baseball cap and mask, making only his eyes visible.

"And so really the only thing I could see was him nodding along and looking directly at me," Middlewood said. "And not just nodding in a way to signal that he's paying attention, but nodding emphatically in a way, at least that it seemed to me, that what I was trying to teach was resonating with him and his life experiences. He was understanding these concepts."

That one gesture totally changed Middlewood's day for the better.

"I felt really reinvigorated. It was the most excited I had been to be there, in a classroom, for a really long time," she said. "I remember thinking to myself: I've really missed this. This right here is why I love my job. This is why I love teaching."

The moment also gave her an idea about how she could pass the kindness along.

"We sit in meetings for work all the time. We can now think about what little gestures like nodding may mean to someone presenting material to us," Middlewood said.

Later that semester, Middlewood thanked her unsung hero in a tweet by saying, "To the student in my Monday morning class, who nods as I talk, please know that you are the backbone of this class. You're the one keeping us going. Real MVP."


Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more stories like this.


My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday. To share the story of your unsung hero with the Hidden Brain team, record a voice memo on your phone and send it to myunsunghero@hiddenbrain.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Autumn Barnes
Kristin Wong