My daughter started second grade two weeks ago. She is at the same school she’s been attending for three years and yet on the first day, she was a bit nervous.
“Mommy, I won’t know what to do when I get to my classroom.”
“Well, you do the same thing you did in first grade—you are just with a different teacher and in a different room.”
“No, its not the same.”
“It will be ok.”
“But I don’t know where to sit. I want to know where to sit. How will I know where to sit? What if I don’t have a spot?”
“Sweetie, Mrs. Keown will tell you. Trust me. She’ll find you a spot.”
I love the first day of school. I relish in putting on teacher clothes after a long summer, in meeting new students, and in the overall buzz of academia in the fall semester. Yet my daughter’s anxiety reminded me there is some trepidation involved with the first day of school. That’s right—I remember–the excitement is often accompanied with a few butterflies, even now, as I’ve been a student in countless classrooms and a teacher in countless more. The excitement of all that is new brings some uncertainty. The first day of school often introduces unfamiliar content, unknown physical spaces, and unexplored interactions and relationships. Even if there is some spill over from past spaces, interactions, and courses; the particular connections that exist in that particular classroom on that particular day are distinct. So there is some instability and some desire to “know where to sit” (as my daughter so aptly described). I’ve often joked with my students on the first day that they better pick a seat they like, because I’ve noticed that once they park in one particular seat, they usually gravitate to that seat for the rest of the semester. They find their parking spot and stay put.
My daughter’s fear of not knowing where to sit—or park, if you will—brings to the fore an interesting irony about teaching and learning. As a teacher, I want students to find an intellectual parking spot that is safe and comfortable in my courses. I believe part of my job is to help them find that parking spot. And yet sometimes sitting in and navigating that intellectual parking spot can be inherently unsettling.
“Watch out…there’s a tree behind you.”
Seriously? How long was this going to take? We were in hour 2 of a parking nightmare. My girlfriend and I courageously decided to take our 4-year olds camping and to take the pop-up camper with us. I had never “hooked up” anything to my car before, let alone driven with a huge camper in tow. “We can do it,” my friend kept saying, “We just have to drive on one highway—straight west, until we get there. We can do it.” So after a few practice runs around the neighborhood (yes, my neighbors probably thought I was crazy driving around the block over and over and over) we headed out to the mountains of North Carolina.
Everything was going swimmingly until we had to park. The campground had assigned us a site that not only required backing in, but that was surrounded by huge pine trees. “Look kids, aren’t those trees beautiful?” I asked as we were arriving. Hour 2 into trying to navigate a pop-up around those trees—well, I had some different adjectives running through my mind.
After clearly struggling for some time, two women approached us and asked if they could help. “We’ve been camping together for years. We’re pretty good at this parking thing.” So I agreed and allowed one of them to try and navigate me back into the parking space. The nature of the space made it so that I could not see where the trees were as I was backing up. The plan, according to my new parking friend, was to look at her, not at the trees: “Let’s first figure out where I should stand” she suggested “so that you can see me, then I’ll guide you around the trees and into the parking spot.”
Try #500 (ok, maybe it wasn’t 500 tries, but it felt that way) went something like this:
“Ok, can you see me?”
“Uh, yeah—I can see you”
“Turn the wheel to the right and back up slowly until I say stop… ok… wait, I said RIGHT”
“Right? But we don’t want to turn right…”
“I said turn the WHEEL right. Watch the tree, though.”
“Am I close to hitting it?”
“No. Darlin’–you’ll know if you hit it because the ground will begin to shake”
“Not funny,” I muttered. “Really? Turn right? It doesn’t feel like I should turn the wheel to the right?”
“Look, you gotta trust me.”
I tell the new teachers I train that the first day is a critical day. I tell them that on that first day they have to deal not only with the nuts and bolts of starting classes (e.g., syllabus, attendance, enrollments, etc.) but they also have to plant the seeds for their ideal classroom. If the ideal classroom is one in where questioning is valued and critical analysis rewarded, model questioning and critical analysis on the first day. If the ideal classroom is interactive and engaging, do something on the first day that is interactive and engaging. If the ideal classroom is intellectually rigorous, build in intellectual rigor on the first day. Plant the seeds for what can be (and then spend the rest of the semester nurturing those seeds towards their fullest potential).
As I begin classes this fall, I see different seeds to plant—seeds that revolve around stability and change and at core—trust. I believe part of my job is to help the students begin to find their intellectual parking spot. In order to learn something deeply, it is important for students to park and settle in. I also believe part of my job is to help students understand the structures that make parking difficult—personal lives that narrow the available space, intellectual histories that shade the path, and personality traits that obstruct vision (to name a few). Yet amidst helping students to find a spot to park and stay put, I also believe part of my job is to generate movement—to shake up the foundation so that students have to find their footing; to find something to hold onto during the movement. In doing so, perhaps they will not only learn my content, but perhaps they will learn what holds meaning for them. Learning is about movement. Movement at times can be unsettling. So ironically I am leading them to a space to park where—if I am doing my job—there could be an intellectual earthquake.
My job, then, becomes much more than managing course syllabi, creating lesson plans, and recording grades. I need to, on that first day, build a classroom space that will allow for both intellectual stability (finding the parking spot) and intellectual movement (bracing for the earthquake). At times I feel fairly confident I can do that—in courses I’ve taught countless times I know from experience where the tremors will be, when the unsettling movements will occur. Other times I am caught by surprise. If I am being completely honest as a teacher, I can never fully know what the process will look like as I guide students in and out of various parking spots and provide support for them as they navigate moments of instability and movement. Even when I know what the end can and should look like, I approach each first day being open to the space that is right in front of me at that moment, being open to all possible outcomes, and being committed to the relational interactions that are in that space. For me, it becomes an exercise in trust–trusting myself as a teacher, building trust with the students, and trusting the space that is the classroom.
On this first day of Fall 2010, I encourage you to attend to the relational space of the classroom. I hope you can help your students find parking spaces that are intellectually fulfilling. I also hope you are willing to embrace and support the somewhat unsettling movement that is at the core of learning. And finally, I hope you can hold a classroom space where trust is invited, welcomed, and nurtured.
You are in the driver’s seat. Take the wheel.
Watch out—there’s a tree behind you and the ground is about to shake.
And that is the good news.
P.S. We never were able to satisfactorily park in the cursed campground spot in a way that would allow for us to fully open the pop up camper. Well into hour 2, I decided to ask for a new spot. Within 5 minutes, we were parked. Sometimes you just have to know when to turn around and find a new spot.