Have you ever held tight to some belief that you needed to let go? Maybe it was a belief about your abilities, appropriate dress for particular occasions, decisions committed parents make about school attendance, or maybe a belief about who should cook, drive, and clean in your family.
For many years this Tuesday before Thanksgiving was the source of significant anxiety and frustration. Each semester I taught American history courses that met on Tuesday & Thursday for 75 minutes and more often for 2.5 hours (sometimes even longer) when the course was in an accelerated format. Missing or cancelling a class was unthinkable for me, especially in the 2.5-hour format. After all that was a week’s worth of content!
I could never imagine how the students would understand my carefully structured course if they missed or, heaven forbid, I cancelled one of the scheduled classes. The problem became acute each year this week because the university closed for a very generous holiday break Wednesday-Friday of Thanksgiving week. Another key piece of information. Often this 2.5-hour class began at 5:30 p.m.! Ouch!
Quickly you see the problem. Who wants to stay in class until 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday before Thanksgiving? It’s the mega version of working until 8:00 p.m. on the Friday of a three-day weekend. Campus is essentially desolate at that point. Even before the evening class began, most students, faculty, staff, and administrators had begun their long holiday break. Plus, most students traveled home for Thanksgiving.
The students understandably wanted to start that trip before 8:00 p.m. You can imagine parents wanted that as well. With only a two-day school week many students were anxious to stretch the break and leave early Tuesday or maybe even Monday night. On and on it goes. Teaching a long evening class before a major holiday break is a challenge.
I will spare you the many strategies I employed to insure high attendance on this problematic Tuesday class. Simply put I was rigid!
- Class was meeting for the FULL time.
- Some important grade might be included.
- There would be no forgiveness for missing!
I found it easy to justify my hard and fast inflexibility. It was a rule—faculty don’t cancel classes! I had standards. Accreditation agencies determine the credits for a course based on the number of instructor to student “contact hours.” If I give in to this request, I reasoned, what would be next? Moreover, I rationalized, everyone knew the score when they signed up for a Tuesday-Thursday accelerated course in the second half of the Fall semester. On and on my hard and fast justification went.
But it’s Complicated!
Yes, there are rules, but learning in a classroom setting is a complicated mixture of many things. A clear structure about when and how long classes meet is only one of them. Other important elements include rapport between students and faculty as well as student motivation and purpose. I believed strongly in all these elements, but on this occasion, something deeper in me took over. It was a mixture of beliefs I held about responsibility, following rules, meeting expectations exactly, and a very particular understanding about what dedication and excellence meant.
Along my journey to live with greater intention and to discover, more fully, my authentic self, I began to change. Many aspects of my life changed on this journey but my approach to the Tuesday class before Thanksgiving is just one of the more tangible ones. Changes in my life became possible when I first noticed, then reconsidered, and eventually let go of some long-held beliefs. Many of these beliefs, which had been formed from a lifetime of internalizing a host of messages, had unknowingly shaped my perception of reality.
Turns out there are MANY ways one can be responsible, determined, dedicated, respectful, and model excellence.
As I recognized this rather profound truth I could more readily see this problem of the Tuesday evening class before Thanksgiving break with greater creativity, flexibility, and generosity of spirit.
- I loosened my grip on insisting that students either attend or regret not attending this one class.
- I found many ways to balance the need for having this class with the students many other needs.
- I could see this Tuesday from the perspective of exhausted students and eager parents.
- I found ways to balance the very different needs of in-town students with those who had long journeys home.
- I learned how technology could free all of us to embrace the learning needs and to let go of a rigid insistence to be in a specific place at a specific time.
As I learned more and more about how learning works, I could see the silliness and futility of my inflexibility that I used to justify rigor and high standards. Upon reflection, I have been saddened and humbled that my rigid beliefs about excellence, accountability, responsibility, etc, showed up so much in my teaching.
This week is my first Thanksgiving week since the 1990s that I’m not teaching. Now I’m on a mission supporting others in higher education who are interested in starting or continuing their journey to live with greater intention. I’m moved and inspried when I see how others’ transformation have and will continually change their approach to teaching, scholarship, service, and most importantly, life!