Gorgeous Gray, part 2

If you’re following this blog, you know that a few months ago I made the decision to let the artificial color grow out of my hair and to explore the silver subtleties of this season of life. It’s been an interesting process—with plenty of moments when I want to run screaming to the store for a box of color! But as the process has unfolded, I’ve discovered multiple layers of reasons to push forward and multiple “points to ponder” along the way.

First, I’ve been thinking a lot about the beautiful, strong, white-haired women who are part of my heritage—my mom and great-aunt Helen on one side of the family, Grandma Helen on the other. Somehow this process feels like a way of honoring them and the gift that they have been in my life. Their spunk, their feisty courage, their mischievous smiles, their no-need-for-makeup beauty—what treasures they are! My mom is the only one of these women still living, and I wouldn’t change one white hair on her lovely head. (Love you, Momma!)

Mom and I

A surprising element of this process has been the number of people who feel compelled to give me their (usually negative) opinion of it! Men, women, family members, friends, mere acquaintances—there has been no lack of voices expressing strong judgment about what a mistake I am making. One comment in particular struck me with forcible irony: “Why do you want to pretend to be something you’re not?” (Granted, the sub-text of that was, “You’re only 50-something, why do you want to look 70?” We’ll come back to this.) Um, who I am is a 50-something woman with silver-white hair, who’s been pretending to be the same redhead she used to be! That word “pretend” kicked off some blinders for me—one of the reasons that I am cherishing this process is precisely because it lays aside pretense and false appearance. We’ve recently experienced a season filled with pretense in many subtle and insidious guises—subterfuge, dissimulation, charades, facades, duplicity, and disingenuousness. And, as my younger friends would say, “I am so over it!” Although this process didn’t start out as protest, it has become, at least in part, my own personal rejection of pretense and a symbolic embrace of radical authenticity and honesty.

Going back to the comment about 50-somethings and 70-somethings, another thing that has been much on my mind is the prevailing concept of beauty and aging in our culture—and the strong double standard embedded in that concept. What is there that makes salt-and-pepper or silver hair look “distinguished” or “handsome” on a man, but leaves a woman “old” and “ugly”? And is it that same dynamic that makes people feel so free to give commentary on a woman’s appearance-related choices, when it would never occur to them to offer a man the same advice? Again, “I am so over it!” Another level of protest mode has strengthened my resolve!

Gorgeous gray? Well, it remains to be seen just how gray and just how gorgeous—will the end of this process be an interesting mix of silvery shades, or the stunning white crown of my matriarchs, or something in between? But I am daily more settled and content with my no-pretense choice (and it is, after all, my choice, and I respect the different choices that others make). For those who have only known the feisty redhead, fear not—feisty is not going away! (In fact, I’m tempted to post a warning on the home page of all my classes: “I was once a redhead. Choose your words accordingly!”) For now, to quote another young friend, “Just keepin’ it real!”

“The Courage to Teach”

Dr. Rachel Coleman

I am a teacher. There, I said it—an unvarnished, unashamed declaration of identity. This declaration is both confession and catharsis. I will not hunker down in embarrassment behind other labels that might minimize teaching—“instructor ” or “facilitator” or even “professor.” Whether online or in a traditional classroom, whether with second-career adults or young adults, whether in a U.S. institution of higher learning or a Bible seminary in Latin America or a training center in Spain—what I do is teach and who I am is teacher. Teaching is both a profession and a vocation; I will be a teacher whether gainfully employed as such or not.

When I began to read Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life,[1] I became aware of how I’d drawn back from “naming and claiming” that identity. Several factors had contributed to this gradual shift away from “owning” my vocation. First, in one arena of my professional life, there has been a strong emphasis on Interactive Adult Learning (IAL), which is beautifully learner-centered and puts a high value on the adult as architect or agent of his or her own learning. The flip side of IAL, however, is its insistence on redefining the role of the teacher as “facilitator,” with a sometimes painfully disdainful dismissal of the value of teaching.  Second, the world of higher education has its own collection of terms—instructor, professor, faculty—that seems carefully designed to offer something better or more sophisticated than “mere” teaching; “I am a professor” carries more weight in the academy than “I am a teacher.”  Third, in the larger cultural context, there is a sad but persistent tendency to devalue teaching and teachers. As Parker Palmer puts it:

The pace of change has us snarled in complexities, confusions, and conflicts that will diminish us, or do us in, if we do not enlarge our capacity to teach and to learn. At the same time, teacher-bashing has become a popular sport. Panic-stricken by the demands of our day, we need scapegoats for the problems we cannot solve and the sins we cannot bear.

Teachers make an easy target, for they are such a common species and so powerless to strike back. We blame teachers for being unable to cure social ills that no one knows how to treat; we insist that they instantly adopt whatever “solution” has most recently been concocted by our national panacea machine; and in the process, we demoralize, even paralyze, the very teachers who could help us find our way.[2]

In initially imperceptible ways, I found myself giving in to these elements that subtly scorn the worth of teaching. In certain contexts, for instance, I avoided teacher/teaching vocabulary in favor of other terms (usually facilitator of learning). And every time I filled out an end-of-course faculty survey for one of my employers, I would find myself staring for a few minutes at one particular question. The wording is something like this, and the question requests a response along the scale from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree”: My role as instructor (not teacher!) in this course significantly impacted student learning outcomes. I knew that the honest answer to that question was, in almost every case, “I strongly agree!” But could I give myself permission to be that boldly honest—and to change the word “instructor” to “teacher” in the comments section? As I wrestled with those hesitations, this passage from The Courage to Teachacted as a sort of emancipation proclamation for me:

I have no question that students who learn, not professors who perform, is what teaching is all about: students who learn are the finest fruits of teachers who teach. Nor do I doubt that students learn in diverse and wondrous ways, including ways that bypass the teacher in the classroom and ways that require neither a classroom nor a teacher!

But I am also clear that in lecture halls, seminar rooms, field settings, labs, and even electronic classrooms—the places where most people receive most of their formal education—teachers possess the power to create conditions that can help students learn a great deal—or keep them from learning much at all. Teaching is the intentional act of creating those conditions, and good teaching requires that we understand the inner sources of both the intent and the act.[3]

I am thrilled, humbled, and honored to have been called into a life of teaching by the One who is himself the Teacher par excellence. Jesus’ disciples never once called him their “facilitator”—during their three-year intensive course with him, as he prepared them to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6), he was their beloved Teacher.

rlc teaching

And so, as I sit at a desk in a seminary in Mexico City, I acknowledge boldly that I am here as a teacher. Will I do things to facilitate the students’ learning? Of course—but those things are merely technique. And as Palmer says, “Technique is what you use until the real teacher arrives!”[4] To all my teacher friends out there—own your identity and your calling! Polish your techniques, strategies, and methods, but most of all, embrace your vocation! And let us be on the alert for the ways that our investment in learners can cultivate their capacity to be world-changers.

[1]San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass, 1998.

[2]Palmer, 3.

[3]Palmer, 6.

[4]See Palmer, 5.

“Immeasurably More”

“Immeasurably More”

 Dr. Rachel Coleman

For several years now, inspired by the example of a young and much-admired friend, I’ve been choosing a “word of the year” to carry with me through the 12 months of daily living that start on January 1. Another young friend and colleague asked me last week, “How do you choose? And what benefit does a ‘word of the year’ bring to your life?”

The perceptible benefits of this practice can be summed up very simply: attentiveness. I have found that having a prayerfully selected word for the year, accompanied by a well-chosen Scripture passage, keeps me attentive, alert, on the lookout for the ways that God is working in relationship to all the things bundled up in that single word. The “word of the year” is an instrument that helps to fine tune my senses to see and hear more clearly the little evidences that I might otherwise miss.

The process of choosing is pretty simple. I spend some time looking back over journal entries for the final couple months of the year, to identify the themes and threads that show up consistently from times of prayer and engagement with Scripture. Then I try to discern what it is that God is speaking into my life and which word would best express that message and serve as both an anchor and a motivator in the coming year.

Reflecting on journal entries for the latter months of 2018 revealed the patient, gentle wooing of the Spirit to a wounded heart and a bruised faith and the bold invitation to hope again. In fact, I first leaned toward hopeas my new “word of the year.” But then I realized how consistently God was drawing me back to one of my most cherished passages in all of Scripture, Ephesians 3:20–21: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is a work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (NIV). Those verses express the reason we can hope and the wild, bold scope of hope-filled prayer. They invite us to place our hope in the God who can do immeasurably more that our limited capacity to ask and they stir us to fling wide the doors of imagination in our asking, so that the possibilities can be shaped by God’s limitlessness rather than by our limitations.

more

So I choose “immeasurably more”as my 2019 “word of the year.” Yes, I know it’s two words in English, but those two translate a single robust Greek word, hyperekperissou. To get a sense of the richness of the word, just look at the various translations: infinitely more (NLT), abundantly beyond (NASB), exceeding abundantly above (KJV), far beyond (CEB), so much more (GNB), abundantly far more (NRSV). So, as we stand on the edge of the new year, I’m bringing along my words from 2017 (expectancy) and 2018 (boldly), both grounded in the audacious prayer of the church in Acts 4:29–30, ready to embrace with bold expectation the “immeasurably more” of 2019.

Happy New Year, everyone! I’d love to hear about your “words of the year” and how or why you chose them.

 

“Dear Student,” with love from Dr. C

I have a much-admired friend named Alaine, who is a fellow sojourner in the world of teaching college and seminary students. (If you’d like to get to know this incredibly talented woman of God, who is not just a gifted teacher but a sought-after speaker and preacher, her website is: www.alainebuchanan.com.) On her Facebook page, she has an ongoing series of posts that begin with “Dear student. . . .” In a delightful mix of compassion, irony, and figurative head-shaking, Alaine addresses some basic matters that affect student success. Each post generates heart-felt “amens” from the fellow teachers in her circle of friends.

I’ve been thinking about Alaine’s posts and about the familiar litany of complaints that is heard when teachers of adult students get together. The recurrent student behaviors that move us toward gentle correction (on a good day) or frustrated sighs and eye rolls (on the not-so-good days) all fall into five basic categories: (1) failure to read instructions; (2) failure to read the clearly published evaluation criteria (rubric); (3) failure to prioritize their studies; (4) failure to pay attention to feedback that is given along the way, and (5) a belief that grace and mercy are cheap commodities, easily asked for and easily obtained.

read-instructions-advice-vintage-slate-blackboard-54893465

As a student (μαθητής, mathetés, disciple) of the Great Teacher, these five actions and attitudes should give me pause. I frequently tell my students (so frequently that it may end up carved into my tombstone), “The assignment instructions and the evaluation criteria provide a road map to success.” They are a detailed, clearly published set of expectations that, if followed, will make sure a student knows and fulfills the requirements of that particular assignment. H’mmm, let’s see. How much more clearly could God have expressed his expectations for life in his kingdom? Ten Commandments too much to remember? How about Micah’s distillation of the ten in three: “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Three still too many? Jesus said it in two: “Love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbor as yourself” (see Mark 12:28–34). And the rubric for that double-sided single command? It’s pretty clearly expressed in Matthew 25:40, when the king says, “I tell you the truth, when you did it [mercy, compassion] to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (NLT). How much attention am I paying to the assignment instructions and the rubric?? Does Jesus get tired of rolling his eyes?

Adult students all have busy lives, with many factors competing for their time and attention. Family, work, ministry—these all vie for top place in their schedule. School work is often squeezed in late at night on the last day of a module or workshop, when their energy and concentration are depleted. They are frequently rushing from one assignment to the next, not stopping to read and digest the detailed feedback that an instructor has given on their previous work, which means they keep making the same mistakes over and over, with no course correction. H’mmm. The parallels for students of the Great Teacher are pretty easy to discern. Where does the hard work of discipleship fit into the way I prioritize my time and energy? Am I sitting still and remaining quiet long enough to hear feedback from the Holy Spirit, whispered through his Word or through a spiritual adviser or fellow disciple? Hearing the feedback, making course corrections, getting out of the same-old-errors patterns—this holy habit has been strengthened for me by participating in a discipleship band. We ask each other the hard evaluative questions that can lead to deep and lasting transformation: How is it with your soul? What are your struggles and successes? Any sin to confess? Anything you want to keep secret? How might the Holy Spirit be speaking and moving in your life? (Interested? Check out DiscipleshipBands.com.)

And then we come to student expectations that “grace and mercy” are liquid commodities, on tap and flowing easily like cheap beer or bad coffee, available as the panacea for every crisis or pseudo-crisis. Each teacher develops his or her own blend of “firmness-that-holds-to-the-line” and “grace-that-extends-undeserved-mercy-and-compassion.” My own blend is pretty balanced, with a tilt towards grace, but nothing pushes my buttons more than a student’s blithe expectation that such mercy costs me nothing in terms of time, energy, or rearranging of schedules and plans. Ouch! How often do I plead for mercy, which the Great Teacher freely and repeatedly extends, but forget the radical price he paid to make that grace available to me? Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

Dear students, thank you for reminding me that your foibles and failures and frustratingly blithe assumptions are also my own.

 

 

Gorgeous Gray

This is a post I’ve been putting off, because once I put it out there, it’s going to hold me accountable.

I am grateful for the gift of friendships with women who are authentically full of faith, transparently real, readily perceptive of the ridiculous side of life, and willing to engage tough questions with raw honesty. Some of those sister-friends are geographically distant and our face-to-face encounters are sadly rare, so it’s an inestimable delight when God provides that kind of connection in our local context. “Girls’ night out” with Linda and Micki (names used with their permission) is guaranteed to be a time of laughter and refreshingly direct engagement with a wide range of questions.

Linda is blind, and has patiently (and hilariously) taught Micki and me a lot about what it means to navigate the world, church, and faith from that place and perspective. She lets us ask “weird” questions about her experiences and gives us forthright answers. A few weeks ago, Micki asked Linda how she experienced color, since she’s been blind since birth and has never perceived color as a visual experience. Linda told us that the concept of color is associated in her mind with emotions, and gave the example of the color gray being associated with sadness. One of us mused out loud about the many shades of gray that exist, and the other piped up with, “Fifty, to be exact!” (Disclaimer—none of the three of us has been near the infamous book or movie, but the title is “in the air” to such a degree in our historical-cultural moment that it popped right up and sent us all off into peals of laughter at how quickly a serious conversation can get derailed by a random thought.)

In the days that followed that conversation, I began to pay attention to gray. It’s everywhere! The dull, flat gray of pewter. The purple-tinged gray of storm clouds heavy with rain. The cool, smooth gray of slate. The soft gray on the breast of a dove or on the light clouds scudding across the sky after rain. The shiny gray of a rain-soaked street at dawn. The dark grey of fresh charcoal and the ashy gray of the spent coals. And what about these amazing shades of gray in the 64-crayon box from Crayola: Cadet Blue, Crystal, Deep Space Sparkle, Dolphin Gray, Outer Space, Sonic Silver, Timber Wolf, and White Shimmer? Gray is not a non-entity in the world of color, but a full participant! (This is a timely reminder for those of us who look longingly back at the vibrant colors of summer and dread the passage into “the long gray days” of winter.)

How the Creator of all things must delight in subtle hues and myriad variations on a color theme! Multiply all those shades of gray by an equally vast palette of blues, greens, reds, browns, blacks, yellows, and oranges—and you discover an extravagantly abundant feast of color to bring joy to the hearts of those who have eyes to see! All this pondering on gray and celebrating the colors splashed with a lavish hand all through creation led me to two reflection and action points.

First, we live in a time and place when the forces of evil are using every means at their disposal to divide our perceptions of the world into a binary reality of mutually exclusive colors—red or blue, black or white. What might happen if we forcefully rejected such a limited choice and reached out to see, experience, embrace, welcome, and celebrate the multi-hued palette with which God has delighted to paint humanity? How can I personally and intentionally practice such celebration? And it was in the asking of that question that this all came down to a second point. What if this fifty-something, hair-coloring Dr. Nana were to say, “Enough! Time to embrace the gray-to-white spectrum!”? What if that simple act of defiance in the face of culturally-approved choices for women “of a certain age” could serve as a daily reminder to embrace and rejoice in the Creator’s love of the multi-hued humanity that surrounds me, whether those color variations are in skin tone or political persuasion?

If this post appears on my blog, you’ll know I’ve taken the plunge! Feel free to hold me accountable. What steps might you take in your own journey to celebrate the lavish, many-toned palette displayed in the people with whom you share this space and time?

“Dum-Dums” and the Apostle James

Last Sunday our dynamic and creative children’s coordinator, who is also organizing the upcoming Fall Festival, took a moment after the children’s sermon to make a plea to the congregation. Here’s what I heard come out of her mouth: “I need dumb-dumbs!” In the millisecond before my mouth let loose a shocked gasp at her audacity, my brain engaged and made sense of what she had actually said: “I need Dum-Dums!” Ah, those little lollipops! She wasn’t insulting our intelligence, she was asking for donations of candy for a festival game.

Dum Dums multi color

That little incident provided fodder for giggles, but it also set me to pondering the deep wisdom of the Apostle James when he addresses the power of active, intentional listening as our communicative priority. James says it this way: “Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry” (1:19, CEB). The decision to be “quick to listen” is perhaps the most important thing we can bring to the table when it comes to the complexities of human interaction. Listening—active listening that seeks understanding—is the number one defense against making quick, erroneous judgments and assumptions about the meaning and intent of the other person’s message. Listening with patience that allows the other person the time and space to fully express his message; listening with humility that allows the other person to be “the expert” on her aims, feelings, objectives, and meaning; listening with a firm commitment to responding rather than reacting—this is the kind of listening that keeps us from snap judgments, from assigning sinister motives where none exist, and from quick, unwarranted anger. It is the kind of listening that not only allows us to correctly translate messages like “dumb dumbs” (what I heard) into “Dum-Dums” (what was meant); it also makes us more likely to translate correctly much bigger, weightier messages like “that was an insult or a threat” (what we hear) into “that person is really fearful or hurting, and I just happen to be the closest target” (the reality behind the message). Not being “quick to listen” means we will likely reactto what we hear—probably in anger—rather than respondingto the deeper issue that has prompted the message. And James is really clear: “An angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness” (1:20).

I’m looking forward to our Fall Festival and discovering what a “Dum-Dum Tree” is and how the game works. I plan to take a picture of it to keep near my desk, as a reminder to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”

 

A ‘Real’ Job?

 

This is not the post I intended to write today. But it is the one asking to be written, so here goes!

My name is Rachel. I’m an adjunct college and seminary professor. (And yes, there are support groups for people like me.) A young house guest recently asked me, “Do you have a real job?” I could tell that he expected me to say no, and it struck me that he had probably given voice to the question that some adults in my circle were thinking but didn’t have the filter-less honesty of a child to ask. If you know people involved in academia, it’s almost certain that you know at least one adjunct instructor or professor. So let me tell you a little bit about what it means to be someone in that category. Or more accurately, let me tell you what it means to be me in the world of adjunct teaching, since each person’s experience will be a little different. This is what it means to be “Dr. C,” adjunct college and seminary professor.

Being an adjunct instructor means confronting the perception that what you do isn’t a “real” job and that you are fundamentally “less than” those who have landed the full-time, tenure-track positions.After all, the definitions of “adjunct” are (1) “something added to another thing but not essential to it,” (2) “a person associated with lesser status, rank, authority, etc., in some duty or service,” and (3) “assistant.” Not exactly an esteem-building set of assumptions to have built right into the language that describes your professional identity! And those assumptions are often the elephant in the room, whether your conversation partners are administrators, full-time colleagues, students, or even the voices in your own head. The reality is, however, that “adjunct” frequently has far more to say about the budgeting and staffing choices of educational institutions than it does about the qualifications, skills, experience, and passion of the people who fill the adjunct category.

adjunct Scarlet-Letter

Being an adjunct instructor means that you are a juggler. The world of the adjunct revolves around balancing a multiplicity of factors. Adjunct instructors typically work for more than one institution of higher learning; in my case, I am currently writing courses and teaching for four programs in three schools. What does that mean for the daily juggle? It means navigating the idiosyncrasies of multiple learning management systems (the delivery platforms for online courses), multiple course calendars (my courses run anywhere from five weeks to a full semester), multiple languages and cultural contexts (I teach in both English and Spanish), multiple levels (my courses cover the gamut of programs—non-degree certificates, associate, bachelor and Master’s degrees), multiple e-mail addresses to check, and multiple sets of institutional expectations regarding grades, attendance, and reporting.

Being an adjunct instructor means low pay and zero benefits. Even if you are working full-time hours and carrying what in any single institution would be a full-time teaching load, because those hours and that teaching load are spread across multiple schools, health insurance and retirement benefits are not part of your income. Budgeting requires creativity, since pay rates and schedules vary from school to school and there is no guarantee that you will be offered another course when your current one finishes.

adjunct_orientation

Being an adjunct instructor (usually) means adapting to the virtual classroom.  Online learning is the realm where most schools are experiencing student population growth and it is the realm most populated by adjunct instructors. If your prior teaching experience was always in the face-to-face classroom or if you’ve never been a student in an online or hybrid course, making the transition to the virtual classroom can be excruciatingly difficult. However, I’ve discovered great joy and incredible opportunities for making a difference in students’ lives through my work as an online instructor. Most virtual classrooms are structured in such a way that every single student must be an active participant in the weekly conversations, giving me the chance for one-on-one interaction with 100% of my students and giving a voice to even the most timid or introverted participants, the ones who might sit in the back row and never open their mouths all semester in the traditional classroom. I am continually amazed at the richness and mutuality of the conversations that happen in my online classes.

So, do you have a real job, my young guest wanted to know? Absolutely, kiddo! And I can say without equivocation that when students enter a classroom with “Dr. C.,” they will find an instructor who is fiercely committed to professional excellence and to their academic, personal, and spiritual growth. Is this what I envisioned my professional journey would look like at this point in my life? Nope! But I’m having a great time with this very real job that has set me on a multi-layered, complex, rewarding, and faith-building journey.