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It was February in Chicago, so I told my students it’s time to learn about… our local plants… Wait… What?  Why are we learning about plants in the middle of winter in the Midwest?  That’s probably what my students were thinking this “spring” semester as we entered into a unit on plants and plant diversity.

Academic calendars, church calendars, and God’s world all around us have patterns and rhythms that guide us through the seasons and through each year. Often these rhythms bring helpful structure and focus to our lives. However, at times, we may find misalignment between the calendar and other aspects of our lives or teaching goals. My own experiences teaching about nature on an academic calendar are what caused me to stop and ponder these times of misalignment.

Sometimes, I must push through and break through my calendar perceptions. Of course, as an ecologist, I know that not everything is dead in winter, and yet, maybe it’s too easy to fall into the perception of everything being brown and lifeless in winter. In such a case, I may neglect to take my students outside, which would be a missed opportunity. We would miss seeing robins foraging for berries, mallard ducks on the creek, and lichens growing on trees. By being out in a little patch of woods, we can better appreciate the hidden life around us—creatures living under a log, the dormant trees and plant roots biding their time until spring, and seeds on the ground that are waiting for the right cues to sprout. God’s creation provides when we take the time to venture out and look more closely.

Even if your discipline doesn’t lean on the rhythms of Earth’s seasons, in an academic calendar can have other highs and lows that influence us. For example, the last few weeks of the semester can be seen as a time when engagement and attention levels are low. Perhaps there’s a temptation not to expect too much from students or maybe even ourselves during this time, as we try to make it to the finish line. Here’s another opportunity to break through calendar expectations.

Sometimes we may even be the authors of our own calendar woes. How often have I planned and posted my syllabus with an ambitious agenda for topics that will be covered and activities that will be completed, and yet as the semester progresses, I’m falling behind the schedule. In my first years of teaching, I felt particularly driven to get through chapters and cover content. However, I also know my students need time to engage and reflect—otherwise the course may feel more like a list of facts (likely soon forgotten) than a learning space in which students can grow in knowledge, deepen their understanding, and practice critical thinking. Certainly, there is content that we are expecting our students to know—in some cases, to meet specific program requirements or accreditation standards, but I now see one of my key roles in designing and leading a course is to find a balance between information covered and the time dedicated to really engage the content. Some of that comes with course planning but also day to day evaluation of how our time is being spent.

I had this experience this past semester during a lecture on pathogens in our water supplies. I had a set of slides planned for that day, and I’d already had to adjust for a day of class we had missed due to winter weather. There we were, in the middle of a lecture, when several students started asking insightful questions to help clarify concepts or to bring out bigger-picture connections on the topic, and there I was with many slides left that I was planning to get through. I will admit that there was a part of me that was whispering, “you need time to get to these slides,” but in this case, I believed that all my students, not just those asking the questions, would be better served by taking the time to think more deeply on the topic through student questions.

Maybe the surprises in life interrupt our neatly laid plans. Given our weather here in Chicago, the image that comes to mind for me is that of planting vegetables in the garden with the real promise of spring and then having a massive hailstorm move through and pummel the plants. We experience this in our own lives—the entrance of unexpected responsibilities or of situations that bring pain, fear, or loss, and certainly so do our students. Here, too, we may need to make space for ourselves or for students—time for caring, for healing, or for grieving. When we are attentive to students as whole persons with rich, complex lives, we can better see how to support their journey as students and as God’s image bearers.

In this season, as semesters are finishing or have recently finished, my hope is that we all have a chance to take the time to notice and reflect. Consider the rhythms of the year that you established and how they aligned or didn’t align with other factors. As I’ve suggested, in some cases you might be able to imagine new ways to approach certain times or situations. In the abundance of God’s provision around us, how can you seek out opportunities for awe, wonder, reflection, and deep engagement? In other cases, it may be that you give yourself time to feel the brokenness of God’s world—where all is not as it should be. In such cases, all our scheduling and planning may do little, but we can continue to care for those around us with the love of Christ—here also, trusting in God’s provision—in this case, in the comfort that God is always with us through all our trials and struggles.

Abbie Schrotenboer

Trinity Christian College
Abbie Schrotenboer is Associate Professor of Biology at Trinity Christian College.