my first day of class manifesto

It’s fall. Again.

By fall I mean we’re back to school even though it’s still August and there’s plenty of summer left. The new school year seems to start earlier and earlier. That’s probably because it’s still August.

When I was a kid, by the middle of summer I secretly wished school would hurry up and start.

That hasn’t changed much. Now that I’m on the other side of that desk, I still look forward to the beginning of the term.

There’s something about the fall term, more than spring or summer, that speaks to new beginnings. It’s an opportunity for a reboot, and truth be told, I can always use a reboot.

It’s an opportunity for discovery, too.

I love teaching because it puts me in the position of always learning. I’m not talking about the traditional sense of life-long learning, which we all should embrace, but in the practical honing of my skills. I learn how to be a better teacher by teaching.

I didn’t grasp this early in my career, probably because I was too green and insecure in my abilities to reveal those insecurities to my students. (To be honest, my greatest fear in the classroom, still, is to be discovered as a fraud).

So, I put on a persona of expertise and stood in front of the group and professed. I professed a lot. Lots and lots of lectures where I stood there and spoke my pearls of wisdom and my students took notes and then spat them back at me in various assessments. I was good, and they were good. But somehow, we weren’t good together.

So what changed?

Over time I became more comfortable with what I was doing. I discovered, a little bit at a time, that perhaps I was meant to be doing this. I lost the fear of being wrong or not having an answer, and shared that with my students. It occurred to me that they might know answers to things I didn’t know.

I gave myself permission to not know, and invited my students to fill in the blanks.

I took that risk to help them think for themselves. Too many years of spitting back facts clouded their ability to think critically. And then I thought, what if the problem is that they are afraid to think critically?

What if the problem lies in, not the cognitive domain, but in something else — their ability to recognize their worth. That they have something to say.  I’ve tried, with varying levels of success, to help my students find their voices.

“Teaching, therefore, asks first of all the creation of a space where students and teachers can enter into a fearless communication with each other and allow their respective life experiences to be their primary and most valuable source of growth and maturation. It asks for a mutual trust in which those who teach and those who want to learn can become present to each other, not as opponents, but as those who share in the same struggle and search for the same truth.”

Henri J.M. Nouwen

I hope that’s the environment I create in my classrooms this term. A safe place to share and learn from each other. To do this, I have to share a little bit of myself, enter into a certain level of vulnerability — it won’t make me weak; it will make me strong.

There are fancy names for this…those of you who are teachers will recognize that what I’m talking about here is an engaged pedagogy — but the root of that is much deeper than an educational philosophy.

It comes from a Truth that I know — that I’ve always known and lived by, though God surely knows I haven’t always been able to articulate this, and it’s only by His grace that I haven’t messed it up too badly.

To reach my students I need to begin by acknowledging their fundamental dignity as human beings.

Too much of my job relegates students to data points. Measurable outcomes keep me employed, I suppose, but it’s the other thing, my vocation, that keeps me coming back every year.

It’s the knowledge that something great happens in the classroom, even if it’s not measurable. Even if it’s only a seed that I’ll never see germinate.

I’ll try to remember this as I begin a new term, and remind myself again and again … and again if I have to, when things get slow or difficult, that I am a teacher. That I have answered God’s call to this vocation and that it is my duty, the commitment I’ve made, to serve God by serving my students. That I am called to love them.

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One thought on “my first day of class manifesto

  1. Reciprocally, speaking as someone who decided to return as a classroom student late into her adult life, the same is true. It was always easier to learn from someone who had a student’s best interest in heart. My favorite teachers were passionate not only about their subject matter, but kind and well disposed to the dignity of the persons in their class.

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