As many students and teachers begin a new school year, there will likely be talk of the educational process as a journey. This resonates well with the Christian vision of life as a choice between two ways or paths (life or death, light or darkness). Think of the many education-oriented sermons you have heard on Proverbs 22:6: “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” But what if, even on the right, life-giving way of learning and living, there were different kinds of educational journeying?
Recently I walked part of the North Country Trail in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Even on this short hike I experienced three very different kinds of hiking, and that led me to think about three different kinds of educational journeying we can encounter over the course of the year.
The first part of my walk was within the boundaries of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, so it was literally a walk in the park, and it felt like it. The trail markers were big, polished wooden signs, engraved with lots of supportive detail. The path itself was wide, smooth and mostly straight. On this part of the hike I was accompanied by my family and we easily strolled along, chatting pleasantly, enjoying the view without paying too much attention to where we were going. Sometimes the educational journey is like that: everything is level and smooth and it all just works and everyone is simply enjoying the experience, noticing interesting new things along the way.
Near the boundary of the national park, though, I encountered this sign: “Follow trail connector signs next 5.1 miles.” Now I found myself trudging along the edge of paved highways, sucking exhaust from passing cars and trucks. The trail connector signs were few and far between, and sometimes difficult to spot. I had to rely on a map to interpret the scant clues offered by the few road signs as I tracked down the path. This was the most stressful portion of the hike, but also the one that made me feel the smartest - at least when I wasn’t losing my way. Both students and teachers often feel like this in the midst of their learning and teaching: we have a curricular map, but now we’re down on the ground, looking for the landmarks that will help us to successfully navigate from one point to the next. This work can be exciting, but sometimes it’s also stressful, as we wonder how exactly we’re going to pull it off.
My favorite segment was when I finally stepped off the highway and into the woods. Here the path was marked simply with blazes, little triangles or rectangles of blue plastic nailed onto trees. Some of the blazes were easy to see; more often, they were just a little flash of blue somewhere on the edge of my field of vision. Often there was no discernible foot trail, but those little blue blazes kept appearing, pointing out the way. Sometimes I could see two blazes at a time, near and farther away, and sometimes I walked for quite a while after passing the last blaze and before seeing the next one. Navigating this part of the hike required just as much attention as before, but of a different kind: instead of figuring out, I had to give myself over to the experience, to actively trust in what was coming next. This segment felt the most like quiet prayer, the watchful stillness that requires us to pay attention, but where we do not plan the route.
Students and teachers, in this year’s journey will you have enough trust - in God, in your teachers or students, in your subject matter, in yourselves - to let the journey unfold before you in watchful wonder?