As I write, my partner is most of the way across the country helping care for her mother, who is gravely ill; a week ago someone from hospice said she had a week or two to live. My partner’s daughter is due at college in a week. My classes start in two weeks, and the Jewish holidays are very early this year; I will miss the first day of one of my classes no matter what.
Let’s go with understatement and say that this is not a typical way to start a semester.
It wasn’t a typical way to start a semester a few years ago either, when a week in I got so sick that I had to be hospitalized for ten days and then have surgery to remove several original body parts and rearrange others. I missed the rest of the semester.
One thing about illness and death: they often don’t fit well into our schedules.
This morning I’m thinking about planning vs. not planning in both the larger life and death and health contexts, as well as the more everyday classroom teaching context. I am planning the start of the semester as I always do: this week we have our annual math faculty workshop, I signed up to lead a first year book discussion, and I am getting handouts and websites ready for my classes. But every commitment comes with an asterisk and forewarning.
Before my surgery, planning the semester was much more stressful than it is now, despite this time’s grief and uncertainty. I often tried to force the semester to bend to my will, before even meeting my students. Ah, this would be the semester where we had time for those extra two chapters we never get to, this would be the semester where I would return papers promptly every single time, this would be the semester where my office would always be neat, the dishes would always be done, and class would be so uniformly enthralling that the students would have perfect attendance and all earn A’s.
At some point, every semester, I would surrender my vision and figure out what actually made sense for myself and the real human beings in my class. The earlier the surrender happened, the happier we all were.
My chronic illness followed similar rhythms. I would feel the beginnings of a flare, and attribute it to a simple, fixable cause. I ate too much, I slept too little, I went to one too many meetings. The next day or week, I would eat less, try to sleep more, skip a meeting. When my symptoms got worse, as they usually did, I would decide when it was OK for me to flare — at spring break, at summer break, after the test, after I graded the batch of papers — and will myself to keep working until the date I was scheduled to get sick. I was not generally able to will myself to get better, although ignoring my body’s signals and continuing to work often made me get worse. Then, at some point, I would just surrender. I was going to be sick. I didn’t know for how long. I wasn’t going to be able to do my whole syllabus. It just was what it was, and I would muddle through as best I could.
With current circumstances, I see how much I have changed. My first priority is to be as present as I can for my family during this difficult time. My second priority is to do my job as well as I can during this time. I am planning where planning is helpful, but not attempting to master every possible option before it happens or doesn’t happen.
When I first started teaching, I planned too little. I figured the problems we were doing were all easy for me, and so I could wing it at the board. I didn’t count on how stressful it would feel to be “on stage” with an audience who didn’t particularly want to be there. I stammered, got lost, and learned very quickly that I had to prepare.
When I started my current and first full time teaching job, I planned a lot, but I often realized in class that my plan was not going to work, so I dropped it to try something that might be better. I got terrible evaluations; the one that stuck said, under recommendations to improve the course, “New book. New teacher.” I was devastated, especially because several students said they didn’t learn anything, and I knew that was not true. I met with my department chair, who dismissed a few of the evaluations as “mean-spirited,” and said to ignore them (if only that was something I could learn to do), and told me that of course the students learned, but with undergrads you have to tell them what they are about to learn before an activity, then during the activity remind them what they were learning, then after the activity summarize what they’d learned.
I responded that that was fascist, and I had no intention of doing any such thing. I wanted them to learn to think for themselves and to solve problems in different ways, not follow a path that I prescribed. She persisted, saying I could tell students things like, “Today we are going to work on finding different ways to solve problems you haven’t seen before.” That frame made more sense, and I tried it, and it helped a lot.
Now I often start with an agenda that I make in advance, but I make it clear that we will deviate as necessary. When we are deviating, I also make it clear that I know we are doing so. Some of my students would definitely prefer that I give them a syllabus that outlines what we will be doing pretty much every minute of the whole semester, but mostly they settle for knowing I have a plan.
Balancing planning and not planning for individual classes became a lot easier as I got more experience. I don’t have much stage fright anymore, and since I am much more “guide on the side” than “sage on the stage,” I don’t even have that much stage time anymore. I have a much better sense of what works and what doesn’t and how long things tend to take. I know what to do when I don’t know what to do.
When I work with instructors who are relatively new, either to teaching math in general or to teaching college students or to teaching with an inquiry based pedagogy, many of their challenges revolve around under or over planning, as they did for me. Personality differences often lead people to favor one over the other. If the instructor’s fear of losing control of the class is greater, s/he will tend to over plan and/or impose too much structure; if the fear of being constricted by a rigid agenda is greater, s/he will under plan or give students too little structure.
What’s striking as I write is that both over and under planning are often responses to fear. The antidote to fear is confidence that one can handle what comes up. For me, some of this confidence came naturally from classroom experiences handling many similar situations, but for a long time, this confidence did not easily extend to balancing my health and work or to dealing with longer term disappointments when my classes weren’t going as hoped. Then my worst realistic fears about my health came true; in fact, things I didn’t even know enough to fear happened, and I managed. Now I am far less afraid – as the cliché goes, it didn’t kill me, now I’m stronger.
My partner and I have discussed the details of her mother’s death that we could plan in advance – how her daughter and I will travel if it’s before or after she leaves for school, how the bills will get paid and the plants watered, what kind of clothing is appropriate for a funeral at her mother’s church, etc. No matter how much we plan or don’t plan, this is and will continue to be a hard time, and the fact that the beginning of my semester will be disrupted is minor in the scheme of what’s going on. I am very sad, but not so scared.