Beginnings: How Do We Begin The School Year, Or Anything, As Skillfully As Possible?
There is nothing like a beginning. Just think of different beginnings. First meeting someone. Building your own home. Starting on a vacation. Of course, it’s not always clear where any event begins, is it? But let’s start with the sense of a beginning. What is its essence? Something new, unknown, exciting, scary yet filled with promise. You don’t know what will happen and are hopefully open to that. To begin something, you end or let go of something else.
To start the year off well, understand what beginning the year means to you. What do you need to be open? What do the students need? You can’t do it solely with thought. You must also be aware of your feelings. Many of us, if we don’t train our awareness, will plan our classes or vacations or our blogs so tightly that the realm of what is possible is reduced to what seems safe and already known. It’s not a beginning if you emotionally pretend that you’ve already done it. A beginning is constructed of questions.
To train your awareness, I recommend two practices. The first involves how you plan your courses. The second involves your mental state when you enter the classroom.
First, to plan any trip, you need to know where you’re going. To begin, you need to know the end. To teach students, you need to know what you want students to know, understand and be able to do. I often used what is called the backwards design strategy, and I highly recommend it.
The energy behind backwards design comes from using essential questions. They are big questions, philosophical, existential, even ethical. These questions are open-ended with no simple answers to them. They evoke the controversies and insights at the heart of a discipline. They naturally engage student interest because they connect the real lives of students to the curriculum. The classroom becomes a place where mysteries are revealed and possibly solved, where meaning is created. In working with questions, teachers don’t dictate answers but direct, model and coach active inquiry. Especially with secondary students whose lives are entwined with questions, essential questions are the DNA of learning. They are intrinsically motivating. Students look forward to coming to class.
I recommend leaving space wherever and whenever possible for asking the students to verbalize their own questions and then use these questions in shaping the course. You could ask for their questions at the beginning of the year and with each unit or class. For example, how might you begin a unit in an English class on the novel Demian, by Herman Hesse? The novel describes the influence of archetypes and dreams in an adolescent’s development. You might ask students what questions they have about dreams or on the role of archetypal imagery or literature in shaping their lives. Their assessment on the unit can include using the novel in answering their own question.
Education, to a large degree, is about uncovering questions. Let’s say you like sports or are teaching PE. Underlying your interest in sports might be questions about your potential: What are my physical capabilities? About competition: Do I really compete against others or is it against myself? What role do other people play in my life and in developing my strengths? And in ancient history you can ask: What can the Greeks show me about what it means to be human? Where in my life can I find the remnants of Athens? Is the past only an abstraction of what once was or is it alive in me today? Young people can easily get so caught up in their social relationships that they can’t see their lives with any perspective. What does history reveal about what I could possibly do with my life? What are the cultural and historical pressures that operate on me? How am I history? If you’re teaching biology, you are teaching the essence of life on a physical level. How does life sustain itself? What does it mean to be alive? To die? Such questions can challenge assumptions and reveal the depths that students crave but which are often hidden away. The Greek philosopher, Plato, said: “Philosophy begins in wonder,” the wonder from which real questions arise and which they evoke. This, right now, is my life. These other people—they’re alive, just like me. Can wonder be allowed into the classroom?
Secondly, begin by shattering any fears or expectations that your students might hold that you will hurt or distrust them. Enter the class as a fellow human being, not hidden behind a role. After you greet and look closely at each student, say what you’re feeling in that moment. Mention your excitement and nervousness. When you trust students in this way, you yourself will be trusted. You model awareness, both of your own inner state as well as of the other people there with you. You are very present. There is no other place you want to go. This is compassion. You care. To be a teacher, be a student of your students. In each moment, you are learning. You recognize that there’s more you don’t know than what you do know. And one of the things you don’t know and want to learn is who these other people are. When you enter with this compassionate awareness, you will be relaxed and confident. When you enter hidden behind a role with a schedule to keep, you will be stiff and nervous. This is the ultimate end you want to teach from the beginning, being a compassionate human being. And since mindfulness is central in the education of awareness, practice mindfulness both in and out of the classroom.
What stressed me out when I began a school year was the idea of a whole year to lesson plan and so many students whose educational needs I would have to meet. All that work, all that time. But if I planned from the end, so I was clear about what I was doing and why; and I developed my awareness with mindfulness practice, then, instead of facing the idea of a whole year of work, I faced only an individual moment. I was prepared, alive with questions, so I could trust myself and be spontaneous. One moment at a time, I could do that. And this changed the whole quality of my teaching and of my life. My teaching and my life was one life.