As the ball dropped to welcome 1995, I made one firm resolution: Teach a class. I was working as a social worker at the time, and I had just been promoted to the Director of my tiny department. It was low-level administration with a high amount of direct practice, which generally suited me well. I took to counseling, case management, family and group work, supervision, auditing, and documentation. One thing that surprised me was that I had fun giving in-service trainings, and found myself easily caught up in the creative energy it took to translate knowledge into digestible, interesting lectures and workshops. This baffled me, because I never thought of myself as a teacher.
Having grown up in a household where my mother was a full time elementary teacher, I knew from countless days working with her in her classroom and after school that it wasn’t the field for me. I have no magic talent for getting groups of children to do anything other than pile on top of me and inundate me with questions until my head spins and I begin to look around frantically for an escape route. My mother could hold up one finger to her lips and a gentle hush would fill the room effortlessly (or so it seemed). If I walked in, all hell broke loose before I could say Good Morning and it all went down hill from there. The teaching gene clearly did not fall to me, or so I thought.
But, that long ago November, I had the unexpected opportunity to teach a guest lecture at a local college. I had been going to a networking meeting for professionals working in the field of aging, and I had made some connections with others who worked in different settings of practice. The local director of Meals on Wheels and I started up a conversation about some of the programs I was putting in place in the long term care facility where I worked to create more validating responses to our residents with Alzheimer’s Disease. My colleague said, “Wow…will you come talk to my class about that?”
As it turned out, my colleague was an adjunct instructor at a small liberal arts college where he taught the Human Services with Older Adults course. We set up a date, and I worked out a plan to talk about the aspect of aging services most people dread: nursing homes and long-term care. I started with an exercise: everyone was to write down 10 things they wouldn’t want to live without. As we began to talk together generally, every few minutes I made everyone stop and cross one thing off their list. I continued this without explanation until there was noticeable discomfort, which was after about five items.
“What’s wrong?” I asked the group. I waited.
“We’re afraid you’re going to make us get rid of another thing” someone finally admitted.
I nodded and walked toward the student, and I pulled up a chair next to her. My voice softened and the room grew quiet. “I know it seems like I am the one making you give up what’s so important to you. What I am really here for is to help you make the most of these really important things that you still have left.” I stood up. “Or, maybe the point is to help the older adults we work with in long term care who have already lost so much do the same with what they have remaining.”
The attention of the room was suddenly all focused on our topic, and the remaining hour of the class flew by. I felt for the first time what it must have been like when my mother had a class full of first graders all attentively looking toward her for instruction. It was powerful.
My colleague had high praise and seemed shocked that I had never thought about teaching before. But all that changed that evening. Suddenly, a new sequence of events seemed to open up before me. As I drove the stretch of highway to my home, I felt like I had tapped into a part of me that I didn’t even know existed. That night…in that first lecture…I had learned, and I had taught. The sheer mutuality of that exchange I engaged in with adult learners had pulled me in, and had given me the first glimpse of a newly emerging identity.
My New Year’s Resolution to teach a class, which I made shortly after that first lecture, didn’t take long to come into being. Sadly, my colleague who taught that class was involved in a serious car accident and was unable to teach the Winter term (he later fully recovered, lest the reader worry!). The department chair needed to fill the class immediately, and my name was the first he mentioned to her. By Late January, the class was mine and I was jumping feet first into syllabus creation, assignments, learning competencies, lectures, and other aspects of collegiate pedagogy (andragogy, actually) that are now where I live out this chapter of my professional journey. Soon, there would be other classes. Then, multiple classes. Eventually, I would make the bold move on the prompting of my department chair to apply to a doctoral program and become a college professor. I didn’t stop being a social worker when I became a teacher…or, eventually, a professor…I simply learned that this was one more aspect of who I already was, deepening my knowledge of my contribution to the world around me.
This story has been on my mind in recent days, mostly because I know that this first lecture was a small point of light for my own journey. More than that: this particular small point of light is highly relevant for my journey right now, in this very present moment. Maybe that’s why I have been thinking about it so much.
While I hope the students in that class learned something during my first lecture, what I know for a fact is that I learned. I realized that for me, it takes jumping in with both feet to know if I am truly meant to do something. Serendipity finds me, and I rise to the occasion when opportunities present themselves on my path. Jumping in with both feet feeds the adventurous side of my personality. Sometimes, these trial experiences affirm a longing of my heart that will continue to play out in ways I would never would have imagined. Other times, these experiences have helped me clarify that even with good intentions, my fit really isn’t where I thought it might be. Both are exceptional learning opportunities.
Yesterday, I officially stepped away from a well intentioned chapter of my career path, having jumped in with both feet to academic administration during the past year only to realize it was not a good fit for me. I am happy with what I accomplished, I learned a great deal, and I am grateful that I was afforded the opportunity to step away with dignity and authenticity. Since I conveyed my decision, I have received incredible, supportive notes from my colleagues and students which further affirms my decision. I am excited to return to a role I have loved for some time as a teaching and research faculty member.
At the same time, I have felt a deepening new call beckoning to me. A new awakening of my soul has emerged in my service and ministry within the Episcopal church. The serendipity of transition within my faith community has thrown me into volunteer roles, leadership, service, and aspects of ministry that I would not ordinarily have thought I was interested, capable, or even “allowed” to embrace. Like my first lecture, this serendipitous invitation has opened my eyes and ears to new possibilities and deepening vocational calling. So, while my paid work shifts back to a role I know well, my vocational life as a whole steps boldly into a time where the question I am asking myself, and discussing with others, is how to deeply embrace this calling as a furthering of who I am, who I am meant to be, and how I contribute to this world.
That first lecture was only the first step on what continues to be an incredible journey.