If You’re a Teacher…Read This.

My heart and head are running faster than my fingers as I typed this blog today. It’s because I am ignited and beginning to catch flame for ideas and opportunities as I read about engaging my current and future students. See, I’m a teacher who loves the material I teach and the wisdom personally gained in my own life over 35 years for the things that bring passion to my life. I love the subjects, the books, the research, the lectures, the PowerPoints, the assignments….I love it all.

But today, I have come to the realization that I love the subject maybe more than I love those sitting in the classroom…the learners who come to be with me annually in the college setting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do get excited about the start of each class and the subject and I do get passionate about the students who pay their tuition to sit in this class with me. I have always cared about them a lot. But in recent reading about the “Mosaic generation,” I have come to understand that I may not really understand what I do as a faculty member….a teacher of a subject.
The reading (“You Lost Me,” by David Kinnaman and Aly Hawkins) has made clear to me I have to revisit the principle of “tight/ loose” put forward years ago by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman in their bestselling business book, “In Search of Excellence.” According to these authors, many companies do not understand that they can manage some things, like the product, etc, but they cannot control what is going on around them in the context of the business world. So there is this contrast of holding on and letting go. That’s how it has to be for me in the classroom…to invite students into the subject, to manage the delivery at the highest quality I can personally muster, to make sure the structures are there to successfully provide what is needed to engage the subject matter, and so on. But the loose part has to be in how students will internalize and understand the material in their contexts; I have the obligation to help them become critical thinkers, yet not the one responsible for how they might engage their worlds. In a sense, I have to walk into each classroom thinking, “how can I turn these students loose in their worlds with minds trained to engage their contexts with wisdom about a subject, not just data and more information they can look up on their iPad or smartphone at any given moment?” See, in today’s teaching environment, the data and information is available EVERY minute via technology. The challenge for me as a teacher is “how do I manage the assignments and data so that when the students are with me they can make the connections needed in a broader world.” It has to be more than tests and quizzes and papers….it has to be about application and engagement. How then do I structure the assignments (tight) to help the students take the content into their worlds as educated people (loose)?

Second, I have to care more for the student’s future and their dreams than I do about the subject matter. Now there is a fine line here in what I mean and don’t want to construe that I don’t care about the subject matter or for that matter the students. But being in the academy for 35 years, I have watched as the subject can easily become more important than the student’s dreams and future hopes. I am realizing I must recommit to knowing why students have chosen my elective class over a host of other options and how this subject will move them closer to being the people or professionals they hope to be in their own lives. I realize this as a faculty member who has taught electives for 90% of my career. I have occasionally taught the “foundational” or “core” classes that students have to take in their majors, but for the most part, I have been teaching those courses students choose from the list. Now, I know that many of them choose it because it is just an elective that fills a requirement, but have I really sought to know how this course might assist them reach their dreams and goals for the future? My challenge here is this: What if those who teach foundational or core courses treated them as electives…..that no one HAD to show up or register for it? What would you do differently? How might you treat the subject and those who come to sit with you? How might you deliver the course content, making it fresh year after year after year after year……to really engage the hearts and minds of the students? How would we revamp the courses at the end of every academic year in order to engage a new set of students the next time the subject is offered? And not just an updated textbook, but a thorough reassessment of each class session and assignment to determine how it will help the student both gain some wisdom on the subject and see the ways it can be applied to the futures they envision for themselves.

Teaching colleagues, if you’ve read this far and say “bunk” or this is “crap,” thanks for your time. But if these ideas have ignited your heart and head to think about the subjects you teach, join me in the annual commitment to become the best we can be as we help the students we encounter fulfill their life dreams and hopes.

Blessings to my colleagues in the noble profession of education and teaching. It has been deeply rewarding to me….and I hope you as well. Grace and peace to you as you give your best to each generation.

It Became Clear from the Balcony

It happened from the balcony, in a way similar to Ron Heifetz’ image from “Leadership without Easy Answers.” My spot in the balcony allowed me to see the whole sanctuary as people came in response to the pastor’s preaching—sure, but more to the response of something inside, beckoning them to step out, move down the aisle to the front of the sanctuary to accept a call by God to begin a new life.

Sitting in the balcony allowed me to view the whole scene in a way I could not from the floor—the proverbial forest for the trees. What flashed in my mind that morning was a question: “Why?” “Why are people responding?” Hundreds sat still while about five took the 100 foot walk. Why did they publicly move?

The response to my own internal question that burst in my head was “it’s the invitation.”

Being invited. We’ve all been invited to something at some juncture of our lives. Birthday parties, weddings, anniversary celebrations, bar mitzvah, or so many other celebrations that come during a life time. And for some reason, we responded to them. I’m always struck with words and their origins. And the word invitation is one.

The etymology of invitation comes from the Latin invitatio, which probably meant “be pleasant toward.” It may also come from a more ancient root word meaning “to go after something, pursue with vigor.” These roots in time morphed (as all language does) into the word from the Middle French inviter. The word invite thus came to mean “to ask politely or graciously to be present…to perform an action; a courteous solicitation.” There are synonyms to the word also like attract, allure, incitement, and attraction. All of these meanings are what I experienced that morning. People graciously asked to make a decision…to perform an action. It was on that day I changed the wording of my personal mission statement to include the verbal form inviting.

From the balcony, I had come to realize that I was inviting people to something when I lived out my mission statement. My mission at the time was “inviting people to abundant life by choosing God’s best.” I realized in all the years I had been working with people, I as inviting them to something. I never forced them, chided them, coerced them…I simply graciously invited them to make a choice about their lives. I was inviting them to choose abundant life and living well. That is always a personal choice. It is something that has to spark the heart. No matter what I said or did, it always came down to response freely chosen by a person.

So that is what I have done these many years, invited people to examine their lives and make decisions about how they want to live their time on this planet. And I have become aware, just like that Sunday morning, that hundreds who hear the invitation will sit quietly, while a handful will make a choice to do something different in and with their lives.

The experience from the balcony was actually freeing as the word became captured for me in that moment. In that split second, I realized I had no initial responsibility other than to share an invitation. The courage of the person and their self examination was the factor in determining that they would choose to do something different with life. They alone would have to make a deeply personal choice to walk those “100 feet” to something better. I would have responsibility to assist them in the time after their decisions, but that’s for another blog (or two or three—stay tuned).

Blessings to you for this day as you consider and hopefully accept the invitation to live well that these blogs have announced over a few years. Grace and peace to you for the days to come.

Me & Christopher Columbus

Two hundred and twenty five days was all it took for the history changing voyage. Christopher Columbus set sail with the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria from Palos, Spain on Aug 3, 1492 and by his return on March 15, 1493 had traversed round trip across the Atlantic Ocean, explored, named and claimed the Caribbean Islands for Ferdinand and Isabella, and opened the New World for future travelers. And as we say, “The rest is history.”

It’s been about 245 days since my last writing on May 11, 2012. I never meant to go that long in writing, but life unfolded in a way that has changed our family history and experience from this point forward. We have traversed uncharted waters for us personally and a new part of history is in the making.

My father-in-law died in late April, which little did we know would be the beginning of other events. By May 4, my wife had unexpected double bypass heart surgery with a summer spent recuperating; my in-laws’ house had to be cleared of all its contents so some future residents could make it their home; our daughter went off to college in August; and my mother -in-law moved further along the highway of dementia as she adjusted to her new home in a nursing facility.

Now with a full semester of teaching and administrative work complete at the graduate school I serve, all these things are reminders that my (our) world has changed significantly.
The older I get, the more I become aware that it is critical to savor the present moments because one’s “history” can be overwhelmingly reshaped in 200 days (give or take a few). Often we are lulled into a stupor of sameness believing that we have control over what will happen and we can guide the days to be similar in outcome from those of the past. But just as Columbus didn’t know he would lose two ships and survive a near mutiny, we do not know what each sunrise will bring in the hours that follow. A slip and fall three years ago which took nanoseconds broke my leg that now leaves me with a lifetime limp and daily ache. In a thirty second treadmill walk, my wife’s life changed with a rush from one hospital to another for open heart surgery. A telephone call in the night, a missed stoplight, being in the “wrong place at the wrong time” can change our worlds—our histories—forever.

I’m learning to hold each day as precious, not sweating the small stuff (as best I can), savoring each blessing I receive throughout the day, and spending time reflecting on the grace extended to me in a 24 hour period. It has made me somewhat more quiet and reflective—which I’ve been most of my life as an introvert—but now with a purpose, being more grateful and less judgmental of those around me than I had been throughout much of my life.

Christopher Columbus had a plan as do I. I have plans for the future that I hope will take me places that are good and the best for me, my family, and to those I am connected. But a lot of life is uncharted, providing adventure each day. So I’ve relearned the old “loose-tight” principle—holding onto things that matter as best I can but not so tightly that I edge into despair when the uncharted changes the course of life—at least for the moment.

Blessings to you all as you traverse open, uncharted waters of your own lives. May you mix courage to move forward in all life’s moments with the grace to learn all you can from each situation. May there be grace and peace in the next 245 days of our life.