If pressed, I’d probably admit that I’m not a huge fan of surprises. In part, this could be a little PTSD from a significant surprise party that I was a victim of was thrown for me. Most likely though, this is probably the knee-jerk reaction of a lifelong planner and recovering control freak. In short, despite my hard-fought “recovery,” if given the choice, I’d choose to be informed and (if possible) prepared for anything coming my way.
But, if I were to actually examine the surprises that pepper my life, my answer would be very different. Not only do I not mind surprises, they are often the most memorable, most treasured moments of my days. You see, I’m a teacher and my absolute, most-favorite thing about teaching is the way my students surprise me.
Though each surprise is different, they all do the same thing for me: they force me to shed my assumptions about the way things are going to go as well as about the people I am teaching.
It continues to surprise me that the classes I am most proud of are often the classes that went wildly astray; the classes where I let go of the steering wheel and joined my students for the ride. For instance, one morning I offered a poetry activity planned to give my class of college students the chance to notice the lenses through which they think, learn and interpret metaphor. Instead, a long and powerful group conversation took place about how yoga can help you navigate life’s (often surprising) twists and turns. I chose in the moment to ditch my lesson plan and let them keep talking. To this day, I believe they learned more yoga than if I’d held to our plan, wrapped up the discussion and had the group unroll their yoga mats.
A different morning and a different class taught me the power of letting go of my assumption about how a class “should” go. The philosophy portion of a teacher training workshop led to such open and honest sharing that I chucked our schedule out the window. Looking back, the long conversation that ensued was the pivotal moment when that cohort of students bonded. Not only were we able to make up the hour we “stole” from anatomy that day, but they remain closely in touch years later.
No planning or preparation can create moments like these in a classroom. In my experience, they are always surprises. My job, I’m learning, is to be watchful and hopeful that they will appear. My job is to be ready to trust them when I sense one unfolding. My job is to be willing to set aside lesson plans and syllabi to embrace them when they happen. (See? I told you I was recovering from my need to be in control!)
It’s not just plans and preparation that being a teacher is teaching me to hold loosely. My students teach me over and over again that, no matter how well I know them, they each have the power to surprise me.
Year after year in a teacher training program, there is the moment when one of my students volunteers to jump into the proverbial deep end by being the first to teach one of my classes while I observe. The moment itself is almost always a surprise. You really can’t plan for when the right mix of students and the ready student teacher will converge. But it is no longer a surprise to me when I’m wrong about who this brave student will be. In all these years, I have never once guessed right! Another thing that no longer surprises me is the goosebumps I get, without fail, watching my student spread her wings as a teacher.
It’s not just in huge moments like this that my students surprise me. There are small moments of sudden courage, such as the one when a long-time student suddenly attempted an inversion she had decided against for years. There are quiet moments of confidence, when students surprise me with their stories. They teach me over and over again that it’s impossible to know what’s going on behind every smiling face so it’s better, no matter how well you know someone, to be curious than complacent. Some of the best surprises happen long after we’ve parted ways, when I receive a note or call with a story about how the yoga I shared with them changed their lives.
So, it turns out that I do like surprises. Actually, I love them. My students have taught me to love being derailed and to (sometimes) love being wrong. Best yet, my students have taught me to hope and expect that everyone in my life can and will surprise me. My husband of almost 25 years, my almost-grown children, my mom and dad, the priest I’ve heard preach a hundred times and the person helping me at Target – they are all capable of brightening my days with a surprise.
I hope someone surprises you today.