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Looking at Things Differently

This semester, I went back to my old college a few days a week to perform a task that was, on the surface, not very interesting. The experience actually turned out to be rich and lovely, which is often the case when I'm sure something will be less than. At its core it involved helping faculty think and write about whether their students were learning what they needed to learn. In practically every conversation, a smile would come across the face of the instructor as he or she thought back on the semester and considered how things had gone. What a thing to talk with so many people who love what they do and care deeply about the students who come to them to learn.

Out of more than 50 discussions I had, though, two have really stayed with me. Both are with young women relatively new to teaching, but who are deeply engaged in doing their jobs with energy and passion. What struck me most is that each seems to be actively seeking ways of doing things differently, trying a creative approach. The first came to teaching from college administration, a somewhat uncommon route. Most begin in the classroom, as I did, and then, when burnout and cynicism set in, meander toward leadership roles. It makes sense on a certain level, but doing it in the opposite order seems ingenious because the more directly you work with students, the greater the impact on both you and them. Doing it "backwards" means getting to feel more effective with every step, something few of us experience as we move "forward" in our careers.

The other conversation that has resonated with me was with a U.S. History teacher who was about to begin experimenting with an idea she’d learned about at a recent conference. Instead of starting her next class with the Mayflower and the Pilgrims and the long, slow movement to the West, she was going to start in California—where we are now—and help her students to see how we got here. She and her colleagues who had shared the idea were looking for ways to better engage their students for whom history is little more than something to endure as they complete their general education requirements. Clearly, any way we can see ourselves in what we're learning makes doing it that much easier. In both cases, these teachers were probably just trusting their intuitive senses as they approached career decisions, but from the outside it feels like looking at things from a new, creative angle.

It makes me more than a little sad that I have always valued routine and structure over invention.

On a more personal level, and in some ways a broader one, I was struck by the simple idea of doing things differently, trying something completely new, going about things in a way that is not like how everyone else has done it. This hits home with me because I have lived most of my life not just looking for the “best” way to do things, but then cherishing that method as if it were gold, as if it were an antidote to all bad and chaos. It turns out it is also a very uninteresting way to live.

Like most people, I’m thinking about these kinds of things right now because it is nearly the end of a year—a wild, and tumultuous one at that—and this is a time we often consider ways we might want to change, things we’d like to do more of or less of in the next 12-month period. I’m also thinking about it because every day I am even more aware of the shortness and the dearness of life. It makes me more than a little sad that I have always valued routine and structure over invention.

By pure coincidence, I swear, we are taking a trip this week to a place that neither of us has visited. We chose this itinerary a bit spontaneously, something I rarely do, and of course it makes me nervous. I don’t know exactly what we’ll do, what it will look like, what we might eat, or even precisely what we’ll experience. This no doubt sounds like a joke to people who love to learn and try new things every day, but to me this is real stuff.

When we return it will be 2017, a year in which I’m hoping I will remember that there are lots of ways to see things. Efficiency and comfort are nice, but not necessarily something I need after more than 65 years on the planet. I’ve had plenty of both. I think I’ll try the alternative a bit more this year. I’ll consider starting where I am and heading back in a direction I haven’t traveled before, like my history-teacher colleague will do with her students. I'd like to shift from being methodical about everything to a greater appreciation of the delicious openness of wondering what might happen next. I’m sure I’ll scare myself to death at least a few times, and I know I will retreat often into the comfort of the known. But my hope is to let 2017 be a year of newness and change, of not knowing what I'll see and not being so certain what I'll feel when I see it.

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