Starting a New Semester: Lessons of Grace and Discipleship [John Hawthorne]

10177498_1411690409093367_2113146266_nThe Thursday after Labor Day is the first day of classes at Spring Arbor. It’s my 33rd start to an academic year as professor or administrator. I’m teaching three classes this fall (I have a one course release for administrative responsibilities). Two of them I teach every fall. The third is a new course for me at SAU but I’ve taught it a few times before. 

Once I get to August, I start transitioning from my vacation pace to my pre-school pace. My mind is occupied by a predictable set of questions: What should be done with these classes? What are my hopes and dreams for the students? How can I make this a meaningful experience for them and a fresh perspective for me?

We may joke about professors taking out the yellowed notes from past years, but most professors are continually revising and reframing their classes, often during the semester. (By the way, how do yellowed notes translate to the PowerPoint generation?) 

One of the great gifts of teaching college is that you get a fresh start twice a year. 

It doesn’t matter how last time went. It may have gone well because of the particular students who were in the class or because I gained a fresh insight. But those students moved on and my insight is now old hat. I got my course evaluations and saw what students thought went well and what didn’t. I have my own post-mortem on what worked or didn’t.

My statistics classes last fall had some struggles. I knew it at the time and my course evaluations and student grades bore witness as well. I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about what happened and what I can do about it as I approach this coming semester. I’ve gotten advice from colleagues and students and will make some significant adjustments this fall.

But I get a clean start. Twice a year I reach the end of my obligations, turn in my grades, and put my current semester books back on the bookshelf to make room for next semester’s books. I rework my course plans and syllabi with an eye to fixing past issues and generating enthusiasm.

The truth is that I begin every semester thinking that I will communicate clearly, the students will not only do the work but will find it interesting and valuable, and that we’ll have the kind of rapport as a class that pays long-term dividends for all of us. Thankfully, I’ve been saved from the cynicism that impacts some faculty members over the years.

I’ve also found that I have to keep myself out of the way of learning. All I can hope to do is create a context in which we learn together. The more its about me, the less I’m focused on their learning.

As I reflect on the cyclical nature of my profession, organized as it is in semesters and repeated courses, it reminds me of some larger life lessons. My normal life doesn’t have quite the same rhythms. Sure, I have weeks and weekends and Sabbaths. I have birthdays and celebrate holidays and an anniversary. 

My non-teaching life doesn’t reach moments of completion. Life goes on as a continuously unfolding process. Yet there are some broader lessons I can take away from my reflections on a new semester. Let me share three.

  1. The community I’m part of is a means of grace. That’s not just about my colleagues but extends to my students. Our work together over a semester is an expression of God’s working in our midst to bring us to new understandings. Even the students who struggle (maybe especially them) are sources for me to learn what God is calling me to.
  2. The process of reflecting on the past and making changes is an essential part of discipleship. We need times of quiet to consider how things have been going. Was I not as sensitive as I should have been in my marriage? Did I act on my own instead of listening to the Spirit’s leading? What steps can I take to make those errors less likely in the future (even if I simply discover new errors in their place)?
  3. I’m not defined by my successes or my failures. What went before is not an indictment on my sense of self or my activity. It is but a starting point. I’m defined by my obedience to grow through those past experiences. As I seek to emulate Christ in my daily interactions, it’s not about what I’m doing but whom I’m following.

With the semester yet to begin, I am confident that this will be the best semester in 33 years of teaching. Not because of my activities but because I can’t imagine starting without believing that to be true.

Maybe that’s another lesson I need to take beyond the classroom.

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