Conquering Conference Calamity

By Jenni Carey

We have all been there. We take time out of our busy schedules to make way for collaboration. It is looked upon as a time of rest and rejuvenation with colleagues. We get to see old friends and meet new. We enjoy the tea and scones and feel very relaxed going in.  Then, little by little, each plenary, each workshop, even each comment from a teacher who has been at this a lot longer than us can start to pile up, creating a frantic need to completely overhaul our school day and revamp our pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment procedures.

Some of this is good. We benefit by being reminded that there are other ways of doing this thing called classical Christian education.  We need to be able to share our struggles and look for more effective ways to reach our goals.  This is, after all, our purpose for holding conferences.  Many times, though, we can end up with a feeling of bewilderment about the slough of information and ideas poured into us in such a short time. This heightened state of awareness of our own shortcomings mixed with excitement about new and wonderful ideas in sources or pedagogy can push us to one or the other end of the post-conference spectrum. Both of these places can be harmful.

On the one hand, a teacher can be so caught up in wonder and amazement at the thought of processing what has come upon them so quickly that they abandon their regular routine and decide to start all over:  “Now that I know all of this about Lewis or Tolkien…Now that I realize this phonics program may be better…Now that I have such a better handle on poetry…I really wish we could purchase this writing curriculum…I want to invest in these book sets… I need to start preparing more Socratic questions to lead my students in discussion…” The list goes on and on.  This hits us about the time we return to our regular school days. We wonder what we can change and how fast we can implement those changes.

On the other hand, one can become so inundated with the plethora of options out there that they retreat to their “safe space,” within their usual routine, and the excitement raised from their own learning from colleagues dwindles as quickly as putting the journal used to takes notes right back on the shelf and opening the familiar, feel-good lesson planning book that has all of the same routines, lessons, and traditions of the classroom that keep it a comfortable, manageable domain.

I would suggest classical Christian educators need to take heed not to fall into either of these categories.  While we can feel very overwhelmed after sitting through workshops on everything from visual art in the classroom to Latin instruction in the elementary grades, it is important to recognize that Rome wasn’t built in a day.  One way to lessen the anxiety of feeling helpless to implement a vast amount of changes in our structure or pedagogy is to take the time to process in a healthy, manageable way.

There are some simple steps we can take to stay sane and still motivated. (1) Set aside some time to reflect on what you have attempted to take in. (2) Read through notes. (3) Choose three things to focus on for the rest of your semester. These could be one book that was recommended, one tweak on how you look at spelling instruction, and one idea you would like to present to your administrator involving possible implementation across grade levels. Make a list so that you do not forget what ideas are important to you. Keep your notes somewhere in sight, but not on your desk. Return to your familiar routine. Your students need consistency, and regardless of how you feel about all of the things you should be changing, YOU ARE DOING MANY THINGS WELL! Do not throw the baby out with the bath water.

Collaboration should present you with exciting ideas, but also with schola. It should be a time of reflection and thankfulness for all that God is doing with you and your students as well as for all the wisdom he is bringing you through the advice of others. By choosing three ideas to implement into your existing routine, you can be excited about change without feeling ungrounded.  All of the rest of those possibilities don’t have to swim in your mind until 2 am and steal your joy. After you feel content about the time and effort you have taken to implement those first three changes, your notebook will still be there. You can return to it and to the next possibility.

We need to remember the golden lessons taught to us by our predecessors. “Aptitude arises from nature, is improved by use, is blunted by excessive work, and is sharpened by temperate practice.”[1]  We can be “blunted” as easily as our students. Take some time to reflect, have another cup of tea, and incorporate a few good ideas into your already existing routine. Then marvel at what God does with them.

[1] Hugh of St. Victor, Trans. By Jerome Taylor The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor, (Columbia University Press, New York) 1991, p.91.

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