Running in a headwind toward the lights

This summer I began training for a marathon.  Not just any marathon—the New York City Marathon.  I’ve wanted to run this marathon for years so it is important to me to run a good race.  What this means is that I’ve been following a fairly aggressive training schedule.  This summer, though, has been a particularly difficult summer for training.  The heat has been unforgivable.  Even getting up at the crack of dawn doesn’t help because the overnight lows are have been in the high 80s!  And to boot, the humidity is so thick that it takes work moving through it.

Training this summer has been kind of like running in a headwind, uphill, with a heater blowing on your body the entire time.  Not fun. Overall, the conditions for success have not been ideal or even close to perfect.  Sometimes even my best running efforts have resulted in slow, heavy, sluggish runs—not the light, freeing “chariots of fire” feeling I’d like to have when training for a big race. Sometimes it is sheer will and determination to continue moving—to keep my eyes looking forward and to put one foot in front of the other.

As a teacher, I do my best this time of year to set up the perfect conditions for learning.  I spend a significant amount of time going through my notes from the last time I taught the course, updating readings and assignments, and thinking through the best flow of the semester.  And I find absolute excitement in doing this.  The beginning-of-the-year questions make their presence known—increasingly louder and louder as the first day nears:

Who will this group of students be?
How can I push in ways I haven’t before?
If I throw in a reading that is a bit controversial, can I encourage students to see complexities they have not before?
What can I bring to the table (classroom) that is new?
How can I think in ways I haven’t before?
If I tinker with this assignment just a bit, can I encourage students to think more deeply about the topic?

Yes, I am in my element this time of year—planning, scheduling, tinkering, molding, questioning—trying to set up the perfect conditions for learning.  But it is not just my own teaching that feeds my enthusiasm before the first day of school.  I find myself absolutely intrigued watching the new teachers I’ve worked with get ready to walk into their own classroom for the very first time. Now—sometimes these new teachers do not share the same exuberance that I have a few days before school starts.  There are times when they have a look on their face that screams “How will I ever get it all done before the first day of school?!?!?!” (Actually, it is not only the new teachers that sometimes have this look, I sometimes see it on the faces of my seasoned colleagues!).

One of the beauties of working with new teachers is that I get to witness how they think through these “first-day paths” a full year before they walk into their own classroom for the first time.  And what I see is not simply the stress of time management, learning new material, and knowing how to maintain credibility. For many of them, the stress of getting ready to walk into the classroom for the first time is not simply a procedural one.  Rather, what I see are new teachers who sincerely care about doing well for their students. They want to set up the perfect conditions for learning.  The stress lies in hoping they can.  In hoping they can do well for their students, starting on that very first day of school.

In my “home” world, there are some pretty clear rituals associated with the first day of school.  Being the mom of a third grader and a step mom of two teenagers, those rituals typically include taking the dreaded “school supply” list to Target (wandering through aisles with countless other North Carolina parents holding similar lists), going school clothes shopping for the perfect “first day” outfit (easier with the boys than with my daughter), and hosting an annual “back to school” dinner (complete with Dungeness crab flown across the country from Pike Place Market).

In addition to these behavioral rituals, though, the first day of school also brings a bit of ritualistic anxiety to the table—especially for my 8-year old.  It typically doesn’t rear its ugly head until the car ride in, and gratefully, it usually shows up in fairly tame form…as questions.

“What if things are different this year?”
“How will I know where to sit?”
“I can’t remember if I take bus or carpool today”
“What if Mr. Jervis isn’t as nice as Mrs. Keown?”

I expect these questions.  And I always try to calm the nerves with some assurances, a few reminders, and heavy dose of empathy—ending with my standard farewell “Let your little light shine today.”

This year, on the ride in to third grade, the script played out.  I, as always, gave my reassurances, reminders, and empathy.  This year, though, on the first day of school, the traditional farewell script went a little differently:

“Let your little light shine today.”
“I don’t know, mom, it doesn’t feel too bright right now.”
“Oh honey, you might not feel it but it is there.  Your light is really bright.”
“How do you know?”
“I know—I can see it.”
“That’s cause you’re my mom.  You see things that others don’t.”

As I approach this first day of school of the 2011-2012 year, I remind myself: try as I might to set up the perfect conditions for learning, there will always be instances where things simply aren’t perfect.  Students might not get the reading done in time.  I might be tired from administrative duties and not have the energy to run an intriguing discussion.  Readings I’ve assigned might prove boring or difficult.  Students might simply be uninterested in what I’m teaching.  I might be uninterested in what students want to do for their final projects.  Students might have some conflicts with each other that bleed over into the classroom.  The new assignment I’m trying might not be as clear as I thought it was.  There might be a snow day that disrupts the schedule.  A student involved in a group project might need to drop the course for personal reasons.  I might be distracted by publication revisions that are on a strict deadline.  Students might be distracted by life or family or relationship struggles.

The list continues.  And sometimes, during these times when the plan seems to be not working, there are moments when I wonder – was the time I spent in August trying to set up the perfect conditions for learning worth it?  There are times when engaging in the imperfect conditions of the teaching and learning space –truly engaging and staying in the moment—feels like running uphill with a headwind in 99 degree weather with 99 percent humidity.

As a teacher, when these times come, I believe part of my role is to keep my eyes looking forward – to find within my core the will and determination to keep moving, one foot in front of the other.  Sometimes survival is the goal.  Yet I do not want to let myself off the hook and say my role is simply to get through it and survive with minimal collateral damage (although I will admit there are times when that is the best that can be done).  So what can I strive for, beyond survival, during those imperfect teaching and learning conditions?

I can see things that others do not.

On this first day of school of 2011-2012, I issue a challenge.  See things that others do not. Be curious about the student who is defiant, rather than furious that she challenged your authority.  Be curious about the student who seems not to care, rather than upset that he shows up late on a daily basis. Be curious about the discussion that felt contentious and off topic, rather than frustrated that you are now behind two class periods. Be curious about the student who will not speak in class, rather than presumptive that she is just lazy. Be curious about the student who “needs an A or else will not have the GPA and will lose the football scholarship and won’t be able to play,” rather than judgmental of his begging. Be curious about the lecture that left students a bit lost, rather than discouraged about your teaching abilities.

When I allow curiosity to guide me—especially when walking through conditions that are imperfect—I am amazed at the things I see that I did not see before.

There are a lot of bright lights in this world we live in.

Can you see them?

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