Change: Lean in to the adventure

I smiled as I read the quote attributed to Charles Darwin. It read, “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.” I had been the college teacher who always had the lesson well planned and individualized for the learners in my class. When I moved to high school teaching, I naively assumed I would create a similar system. I remembered my struggle to hold onto being the one who planned and dictated the learning flow in my classroom. I did not want to change what for so long had worked so well. 

This one high school chemistry class turned the tide. There were 18 males and three females in the class. I remembered the day with one boy standing on his chair — poised to climb onto the desk (to dance). In case you have never taught, it takes all of two to three seconds for an adolescent to go from pencil on chemistry worksheet to beginning to climb on the chair. A simple non-verbal signal got him to sit. As he did so, he announced that he and I were going to dance together (on a table) at his prom. There was much laughter. I smiled and said, “Prom is two years from now. How about we get back to today’s chemistry assignment?” 

Another boy loudly said, “I hope she gives you a week’s detention.” One girl whispered, “that jerk was going stag to the prom.” I glanced around the room. All of these Catholic high school students could tell you what the greatest Commandment was, but each seemed to struggle with the actual carrying out of loving and taking care for one’s neighbor. In his own little world, the would-be dancer then asked, “Wouldn’t that be fun Dr. Flavin?”

In the instant a teacher has to decide, I chose to try going with the flow. That meant taking a moment to connect with the kids while adding a life skill lesson to our chemistry work that day. I stated, “Young man, I have danced with many men in my life. For a teacher the situation you describe would bring me difficulties with the principal. Past dancing, what is in this for me?” 

The entire room fell to silence. No one had expected the teacher to talk with them. The would-be dancer moved from his world to quietly ask, “What is it you would want?” He was a C/D student who sometimes exhibited behavioral difficulties. I negotiated with him. He was to earn an 85 percent in my chemistry class while being a behavior role model for others. If he did so I’d dance on the table at prom. His answer? He said, “Frank, give me your calculator. I’m going to ace this sheet.” Two years later, I watched a mature young man escort his date to prom.

I had found a new way of being an educator. I had also found that I enjoyed the challenge of going with the flow. That willingness to listen to students allowed me to create an environment where they knew we could dialogue. That dialogue and concomitant trust allowed struggling students to ask when they did not understand and always to be open to receive the knowledge I wished to share with them. Had I not tried something new that day I might never have found a way to reach and assist some of my students. 

Encouraging then participating in someone’s growth isn’t reserved just for teachers, or for parents. That wonderful feeling one gets inside as one watches someone else blossom or something new emerge is one gift we receive when we are a bearer of God’s love to another.

Change can ask us to give to others in a new way. However, sometimes change lands us in a vulnerable place where we need someone else to be a beacon of God’s love to us. 

Recently, my work expanded our department. With the new hire, someone had to move. In a way it could be considered an honor to be independent enough to be chosen to work alone. All I saw and thought, though, was alone. An IT colleague had been assigned to move my computer. I was to move the rest of my stuff the next day. Arriving at work, my heart was heavy as I approached my new desk. Centered between my computer screens was my coffee mug. He had also moved my chair. Touched, I went to thank him. He said, “I wanted you to feel at home when you saw your new desk.” His kindness helped me accept a change I had to, but did not wish to make. 

This week, let’s each of us make a conscious decision to find somewhere new where we can go make a difference by sharing God’s love with others. Whether you lead or accept change, enjoy the adventure inherent within that challenge. 

Anchor columnist Helen Flavin is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer and a member of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River.

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