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the first class

Image from www.kit.org.in
I have been trying to finish chapter two of my thesis (the rough draft is complete, thanks for asking) and also prepare for a class I am teaching tonight. As well, I had to plan a presentation I will be giving next week and write an abstract to be circulated ahead of time. And did I mention a house guest last week and a run of conference calls and evening meetings? Several times a year things clump up like this (hence no blog last week), but I no longer get all that stressed about it. In the journey of life, sometimes we sprint, sometimes we jog, sometimes we stand and wait, sometimes we sit down, sometimes we lie down and rest. One needs to be okay with different paces at different times.

What I love is being able to get into the zone when things get crazy busy. Instead of feeling stress or pressure, I find excitement building, I feel positive adrenaline coursing through my blood, and I revel in working with increased focus. Today, as I write in my home office there are two carpenters with drills and saws working less than 20 feet away. They are replacing the drywall in a closet which suffered significant water damage this summer. Pleasant guys, both of them. Not an angry word, not a trace of tension between them. It is a "shitty job," one of them jokingly told me when he saw the tiny, unlit storage space under the stairs. But I hear the more experienced one patiently guiding the other, I hear one take a call from his better half and tell her that he loves her. There is laughter, encouragement, problem solving, silence, and the steady sound of work progressing.

Unfortunately, I have also worked around unpleasant people. When someone brings stress, conflict, impatience, or anger into a space, everyone around them is affected. When someone is sad, afraid, depressed, or insecure, we all feel it. And hopefully, we want to help. I am a pretty sensitive person. Sometimes I wish I could dial it down a notch, but for the most part, I like that side of me. It makes me more attentive to how my words, my feelings, my mindset, and my tone affects those around me. When I am stressed, I raise the level of stress in others. When I am impatient, it breeds more impatience. Conversely, when I am excited about something, I see others embrace some of that excitement. When I respond with graciousness instead of anger, others are also more gracious.

As a teacher, I am very aware that I set the tone in the classroom. This is why I carefully map out the first class of every term for it sets us up for a certain trajectory. More important to me than laying out the requirements of the course is the implementation of practices which let the students know what kind of learning experience they can expect. The first class always includes my welcoming the students and telling them a bit about myself and why I love theology. I can't expect them to get excited about it if I am not excited. There is a general explanation of the topic and why it is important and relevant to their lives. I present information that I hope will intrigue, stimulate, and invigorate their minds and their imaginations. There is humour, interaction with classmates, a time for questions and answers, usually a video which showcases a contemporary example of theology, and perhaps a short writing exercise to get them thinking (depending on the length of the class). I let them know that there will be hard tasks ahead, but if they are diligent and consistent, they will do just fine. I let them know that inevitably they will disagree with one another and that's okay. We can disagree as long as we do it with respect, and I encourage them to recognize that we often learn the most from those who are different from us. I encourage them to ask questions if things are unclear and to seek out help if they run into trouble. I let them know we are all on a learning journey together and while I hope they learn things from me, I will surely learn something from them as well.

I try to let them know that every voice matters, from the know-it-all who wants to answer every question to the self-absorbed person who tends to go on and on to the shy student who makes us wait through an awkward silence before they find the courage to speak. I try to make a safe space where they can learn not only about the subject but about themselves, for in the end, it is really about transformation. May my students become self-learners, wiser, more thoughtful, slower to judge and quicker to ponder, more generous to the stranger, more open to the divine, and better equipped for life than before they took this class. This is my prayer.  


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