This I Believe 2012: Seasons

I’ve shared with some of you in the past that my students start each year with their own statements of belief, in the form of a “This I Believe” essay, modeled on the National Public Radio segment of the same title. With the start of school three days away, here’s a look into my teacher preparation from the last few weeks, my own essay for 2012.

I believe in seasons.

Two weeks ago, it was 34˚ C in Kandern, just-opened-the-oven heat that took my breath (and will to live) away. Today, it’s 18˚ C, raining sometimes, and the dark grey skies make the green forests greener. Fall is only three weeks away, and I can smell it in the air. I’m ready. Ready for sweaters and tea, for rain and, yes, for school to start again. Summer has been sweet in its timeless chaos, full of movement and bright moments with family and friends, but I’m glad it’s over. I’m not made to live always in 34˚ C.

“For everything there is a season,” wrote the anonymous preacher of Ecclesiastes, and “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” I believe in seasons, because I believe God made us to grow in spirals. We see it in the world around us, how the death of autumn, the rest of winter, are necessary for the lush times of spring and summer. Leaves aren’t meant to last forever, and branches only grow through the barren times. I think of the “leafless” moments of my own life, times when I felt alone or disappointed, when the bright hopes and blessings of richer times had fallen away. They’re not the postcard snapshots to remember, but I grew because of them, drawing closer to Christ to fill in the cracks and empty spaces in my heart. I love summer, but I need winter just as much.

This seasonal life is one of many things I love about being a teacher. Each year, I return to a familiar life and see it with fresh eyes. As long as I spend it in a classroom, autumn will always bring new students, pondering new ideas as the hills outside turn many shades of gold. But I will be different, each year, coming to back to these rituals with another three seasons of growth, my own new branches. Each fall, I look back with gratitude on the seasons past, both rich and sparse, and the God that has brought me safely back, to start again and learn anew.

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At the Ghost Fair: Wealth and Education

The Ghost Fair: Abandoned Expo 2000 World’s Fair site in Hannover, Germany

Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:11-13

When class ends, we pour out into the hall. Back at school, our students get only five minutes to take themselves to the next destination, wherever on campus it may be, whether from gym to library or back again, madly squeezing stops to lockers, water fountains and rest rooms into the truncated passing periods. Five minutes to pick up late homework, ask a girl out, print a paper, settle plans for after school, change for PE class. Five minutes. We, their teachers, get fifteen minutes today.

We also get coffee and tiny muffins, we realize with glee, coming back together from the hotel conference rooms of various sizes, where we’ve just been learning about topics ranging from “magical maths” to social networking safety for students. Ten representatives from BFA’s three campuses, we’ve come to Hannover this weekend to attend the conference of the Association of German International Schools, a gathering that includes some 250 teachers from all over the world.

Balancing the muffins on our saucers, we stand around tall tables in an anteroom full of commerce. Booths and tables, decorated with various educational products, line the walls. A few sell books, with stands displaying brightly-colored, multilingual material for students of all ages. Most of the exhibitors, however, peddle technology. There are Smartboards, student multitouch tablets, systems databases, online courses, online essay revision services, and hundreds of e-textbooks. It’s full of promise, and for a while we watch, pondering what we could do with it all.

It’s only later that I realize my fascination with all the products lies in the reminder that education is a lucrative business. The displays give us multiple points of access–flashy ones–to make learning available, accessible and fun for a digital generation of learners. I’m tempted to scoff hypocritically, forgetting about the iPad on which I’ve been taking notes all day, but I realize it’s not so simple. None of these machines are innately awful, and a great deal of them are quite useful. I remind myself that expensive, technology-rich private schools also contain teachers who love their students, students in pursuit of truth and meaning just like ours.

Still, I have never associated teaching with money. First in a chronically underfunded public school district, and now in a missionary school that operates without paying salaries, I have become a teacher who believes that money, while useful for buying important things like food and shelter, is by no means paramount to the learning experience.

I have known more public school teachers than I can count who remained in jobs paying them far less than their experience and education would earn them elsewhere, committed to their students’ success even in the most difficult contexts. Here at Black Forest Academy, we consistently see the fruits of having a staff who not only aren’t earning a traditional salary, but feel strongly enough about our work that we spend non-school time seeking the support of others for our ministry. In both cases, the budgets for curriculum and technology are far less critical than the commitment of teachers to the welfare and nurture of their students.

I don’t want to oversimplify. I know from experience that public education in the United States faces unbelievable deficits that threaten thousands of teaching jobs every year. Education has real costs, and cutting those costs has real consequences. But I remember returning to my classroom in Seattle in September of 2009, just months after being laid off due to budget cuts, and finding three new computers, a new media center, and replacements of the projector and document camera I’d had for only two years. I couldn’t help wondering then, as I do now, if we should have spent those resources on keeping the teachers who were investing the most in our students. For most kids, a committed teacher is more useful than cutting-edge technology to the journey of growing into mature, thinking adults.

Throughout the weekend we learned, from our colleagues in major German cities, of laptops for all students, of Smartboards in every classroom and commissioned screenwriters for filmmaking classes. I could feel envious, but I find it impossible to look up in the socioeconomic hierarchy of education without also looking down, thinking of Central Asia, where many schools lack buildings and several villages share materials and even a teacher.

We leave the conference on Sunday morning, walking through the site of Expo 2000, the World’s Fair held on the outskirts of Hannover. The campus, once resplendent with international displays of innovation, is abandoned now, a ghost fair grown over with weeds and graffiti. I think about how much this place cost to build for its heyday of 90 days, now more than a decade ago, and it strikes me as chilling metaphor for the temporary nature of so many of our investments.

The best days of class lately–of reading plays around picnic tables, declaiming our paraphrases of the Declaration of Independence, reflecting on nature and transcendentalism under autumn-blazing trees–could have happened anywhere, without even electricity, let alone iPads for each student. I’m thankful for the resources that teachers today have, ones that save us time and energy and allow for communication unheard of fifty years ago. Still, I’m even more thankful for the two schools that have helped me become a teacher that can navigate, but doesn’t require, the latest materials to create a positive space for learning and growth. Blessed by a community committed to serving Christ and our students, surrounded by colleagues who care deeply for what they do, how wealthy I am.

Outward Spirals

The Class of 2012 (last year's English 11 students) line up with their nations' flags, ready to begin Opening Ceremonies 2011.

It’s never too late to change the pace.
Oh, how the days creep up on you,
But the goodness is something you don’t have to chase
‘Cause it’s following you.

And all you’ll hear is the music.
And beauty stands before you.
And love comes back around again,
It’s a carousel, my friend.

Vanessa Carlton, “Carousel”

Tuesday morning we return to Black Forest Academy, dressed in our finest for Opening Ceremonies 2011. Outside the school, our brand-new seniors carry the flags of the 53 nations represented at BFA this school year. I’m delighted to see them, these former Juniors that made last year rich and interesting. More than that, I’m delighted to know them, here at the beginning of the year.

I’ve thought a great deal in the past weeks about what it means to return somewhere, and how it’s different from the linear path we’re led to believe all our lives take. A professor in college used to tell us–while lecturing on Dante’s Divine Comedy and Homer’s Odyssey–that life moved in spirals, a great labyrinth that never went the most direct course from points A to B. We return, again and again, to places we’ve been before. But it’s not Groundhog Day, not even the carousel in the song above. We come back changed, looking at familiar places through slightly different eyes, and every cycle is slightly different, larger and richer than before. We see the minor changes around us, notice fresh coats of paint on walls, and new hair, cut or dyed. Sometimes, changes are greater, and the end of the summer reveals radical transformations of personality, belief, relationship. No matter what, we’re not turning back time, but we are wheeling back around, making another circle as our spheres of knowledge, influence and relationship grow wider and wider.

Our director, Phil Peters, speaks to us about life as a journey, one in which we help one another, struggle and keep moving forward, while students, parents and staff fan themselves with programs on the hot August morning. As the doors open at the end of the ceremony, the courtyard fills with the sounds of community. Everywhere I look, our students are locked in embraces of farewell or greeting. Parents bid their children farewell for a few months; and students fling themselves jubilantly at their friends.

I’m struck, again, by the length and depth of relationships at BFA. It is a risk to invest here, in this community that shifts dramatically with every new year, but everywhere I look I see signs that staff and students do just that. Jesus told his disciples that this would be their distinguishing feature, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). This is God’s love, not ours, and it fills this place.

We can all imagine what this next year’s circle will hold, poring over schedules and remembering “how it was last year.”  But really we don’t know, can’t know, what surprises are in store for us. We’ve just taken the first few steps, but on this brilliant still-summer day, we’re sure of one thing. Wherever we go, whatever happens, it all happens in the security of God’s grace, in the company of faithful friends.

My classroom, freshly painted and decorated, waits for new students!