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Some Assembly Required: A Teacher Wish List for the New Year

Some Assembly Required

In a few days, most of the wrapping paper will be recycled, the ornaments put back in the attic, and Aunt Mabel’s fruitcake almost finished. Then it’s time to welcome in a brand-new, fresh-out-of-the-box year. Our ritual ceremony often includes a bunch of empty promises to our families, our doctors, and our ministers that usually don’t mean very much. These solemn oaths to reform our ways and change our habits are often abandoned quicker than swing set assembly directions. The pictures on the cardboard box of our intentions are beautiful, but as the fine print under the picture cautions, “Some assembly is required.” In the unlikely event that you don’t get a box of intentions under the tree this year, I would like to offer you some of mine. I found these words and thoughts lying around, and used them to put together ten homemade wishes. They are still a little rough around the edges, but I bet you can make them fit. If there are any parts left over, find some kind of use for them. All I had to go on was the finished picture on the box. Unfortunately, the directions for how to make this stuff work are not included.

As teachers, we shape thoughts and behaviors and ultimately, the lives of others. However, too often we forget the one life for which we are most responsible. A series of small, seemingly insignificant personal decisions add up to the power to decide what the next 365 days will be like on the only side of the desk we actually control. According to the pictures on the box, this homemade wish list could make a real difference on both sides of the teacher’s desk. But (and this is a big one), it does require a personal commitment to put them together. If they’re done right, the impact will last longer than Aunt Mabel’s fruitcake. So, as I warm up for a verse of “Auld Lang Syne,” I sincerely hope that in this new year you will:

  1. Stay uncomfortable: For those of us in professional education, learning is our business; it is how we adjust to life. As I recall from my days of learning to ride a bike or how to spell mayonnaise, there was always a little bit of anxiety associated with the process. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s a strange feeling, but it’s what we do for a living—literally.
  2. “Know the pain of too much tenderness.” These words of Kahlil Gibran, a thoughtful Lebanese poet, seem to capture what loving is all about. In our day-to-day lives, we are called to put real love into practice, to lay our lives down. Classrooms, kitchen tables, and office cubicles are strange altars on which we lay our sacred lives, where another’s success is more important than our own. You must know that if you are my grandchild’s teacher, I am not all that interested in your accomplishments, your GPA, or your Praxis scores. All I am interested in is how my children are doing in your class.
  3. Learn your limits. Like me, some of you wanted (I mean really wanted) to be the shortstop for the New York Yankees. Unfortunately, I couldn’t hit the curve ball and my arm was a little weak (ok, really weak). But I discovered a classroom, a place where the balls were not whizzing by at ninety miles an hour and where my arm strength was not that big of an issue. I found out that by practicing really hard and learning a few major league moves, I could hold my own with a piece of chalk (or a whiteboard marker). I don’t know if he would be tempted to trade, but I am no longer interested in Derek Jeter’s old job.
  4. Think inside the box. Life, like a schoolroom, is a box—a cube with at least six sides. Learn to think in it. Unfortunately, if you listen to workshop leaders and administrators, they want all of your thinking done outside the box, but that’s not where you work or live. The good news is that there is clearly a lot of room inside the box. Explore the corners. Look under the desks. Turn a few rocks over. Ideas are everywhere, and they usually hide in plain sight.
  5. Teach new dogs old tricks: I know that you probably can’t teach old dogs new tricks (try explaining Twitter feeds to me or your dad), but I believe it’s possible and maybe necessary to teach the new dogs old tricks. Your school, your family, and your church have wonderful traditions that need to be kept alive and passed on to the next generation. Some of the “silly traditions” around dinner tables and playgrounds are the carrying cases for some of life’s most important lessons. To the puppies, it’s all new. To the old dogs, it is how life actually works.
  6. Break an egg. Some of you are in a tiny robin’s egg and you like that warm comfortable feeling a little too much. In the egg, all of the nutrients you need are there. You don’t have to do anything. But that’s a passing stage. If you never break the egg, you will surely die. Robins can fly, but eggs cannot. In the egg, you have no idea how wonderful life can be in the open air. Getting out may be slightly painful and really scary. But your wings will do you no good in the egg. You were created to soar. Break out!
  7. Become a diamond dealer. Most men and women would not recognize a diamond in its raw state, but a diamond dealer would. Before the rough edges are chipped off and the core is polished to a dazzling sheen, these ordinary looking rocks are too easily discarded. John Steinbeck once sat in a fifth-grade class. In that room, he was not the brilliant writer—at least not yet. Fortunately, a teacher recognized that glimmer of light underneath the tough exterior and chipped away at it. A few years later, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, he thanked her first. To borrow his words from his acceptance speech, “What deathless power lies in the hands of such a person!”
  8. Take a day “ON.” Days “off” may be overrated. Select a day and devote it to the real business of education and of life—thinking! Most of us are so pressed by schedules, obligations, and commitments that we too rarely take a day for ourselves. As poets and preachers remind us, we live in our thoughts. As one writer put it, “as a man thinketh, so is he” (or she!). Keeping that process on the right track demands some private time away from cell phones, e-mails, and schedules. Time alone is not only nice, it may be necessary. Trust that mystery.
  9. Give away your stuff. As the Christian faith reminds us, there is only one prescription for getting what you want, for Christmas or for life. The sewing and reaping metaphor in the Bible is right on. If you desperately need friends, give away friendship. If you need to be loved, love others deeply and without regret. If you need to be listened to, make yourself available to the lonely. If you want to be really free, get captured by love. Ironically, what happens is that the things you give away are returned to you en masse, “pressed down and shaken together,” as one old physician put it.
  10. Decide to be happy. This one is perhaps the most important wish I have for you. We are all standing on the edge of a brand new year that will be full of surprises—some good, others not so much. Over the next twelve months, some lives will begin and others will end; some fortunes will be won and some lost; some friendships will be made and others broken. The really good news is the comforting notion of the constancy of the One ultimately in charge. As T. S. Elliot wrote, “there is but one still point in the turning world.” Most of the stuff that will happen over the next year will be beyond our control. However, each of us will ultimately be responsible for how he or she reacts to these events. As Viktor Frankl reminded us, our ability to choose our attitude regardless of the circumstance is the single most powerful of human freedoms. It cannot be taken away, but it can be surrendered. As the writer in Deuteronomy 30:19 concluded, “this day I have set before you life and death . . . choose life.” Perhaps just as important, love your choice!

Let us live with peace and joy in the year before us.