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An Ode to the Life I Never Planned

Friday, February 10, 2017 by Mary Grace Mangano - ACE 22, Chicago

Mary Grace Mangano ACE Teaching Fellows

I didn’t plan on being a teacher. I didn’t plan on being responsible for sixty-four little lives every day. I didn’t plan on working twelve hours or more each day and weekend.

Mary Grace Mangano ACE Teaching Fellows And yet, I am a planner.

I was the kid in school with all the pens. You know the kind I mean. The milky pens, the glittery pens, and the pens that doubled as highlighters. I once made a study guide for history in seventh grade that another classmate’s parent offered to purchase (an offer, for the record, I did refuse). I make lists. I am that person who puts “eat breakfast” on her to-do list because I like to be able to check it off and feel accomplished.

But … teaching. Teaching has defied my to-do list mentality. No matter how hard I work, no matter how long or how often or how much, there is always more to be done. Much to my dismay, no amount of fun pens and color-coded charts can ever capture the nature of a teacher’s workload. A lesson plan doesn’t portray everything that a teacher does in one day. It simply can’t.

Paradoxically, a profession that requires me to submit plans every week, and to have each day’s lessons planned down to the minute, has taught me the importance of being open to interruptions. In teaching, the only certainty is uncertainty–even the most perfect lesson plan will never, ever go exactly as planned. Ten times out of ten, something will happen to disrupt your carefully crafted class. Someone will be out sick, which will throw off your group numbers. Someone else will forget his book and another will need some one-on-one help before she can start. There will be an unexpected fire drill. The heater will start spitting water and distract everyone for a good five minutes (this has actually happened). But in school, as in life, we cannot know what is to come. And that’s actually a good thing. As frustrating as it can be sometimes, especially when we spend hours planning and prepping for next-day lessons, it’s actually quite beautiful that each day holds treasures for which we cannot prepare. Each day might also hold some pain or struggle. My students teach me all the time about learning from what life throws at us and growing from it.

"A lesson plan doesn’t portray everything that a teacher does in one day. It simply can’t."

Make no mistake: not knowing the plan is exhausting. It asks everything of you–your energy, your sleep, your creativity, your determination, your heart. Some days you sit at your desk, watching the sky go dark outside your classroom window when nothing in your day went according to plan. And then you have to figure out what to do tomorrow. It’s much more convenient to know everything that’s going to happen, but there are also no surprises there. And as Pope Francis likes to say, our God is a God of Surprises.

Some of my favorite moments in class have been unplanned, such as when we got so caught up in learning about Shakespearean sonnets that we stood up on our desks and even belted them out on benches outside. Or when a prayer reflection that I shared became our favorite way to get to know each other, so we started doing it every day. Or when a song I played in class during writing workshop became my students’ new favorite, so much so that they requested it every day or spontaneously began singing it during lessons. There was the time when I was robbed over Christmas break and had to tell my students that their final exams were stolen, only to have one of them show up with a winter coat for me that she brought from home because she was afraid I didn’t have one anymore. There was also the time when a bellwork prompt reminded my student of her dad, who was killed a few years ago due to gang violence, and I sat with her while she just remembered him and how much it hurt to lose him that way.

"We don’t get to plan our lives. But it helps every now and then to pause, be still, and remember who does."

Those unplanned moments always catch me and remind me to slow down, take a pause, and really listen to what my students are telling me. In fact, this call to quiet ourselves has become my favorite form of classroom prayer.  “Be still,” I tell them. “Remember that you are always in the presence of God.” I hear whispers and see papers shuffle. Mary Jane-d feet swing back and forth, kicking the shins of neighbor deskmates. I breathe deeply and say, “Our hands are still. Our feet are still. Our hearts are still so that we can rest with God in the quiet for a moment. Let’s get ready to pray.”

Finally, it is quiet. The air feels like it, too, has paused.

We don’t get to plan our lives. But it helps every now and then to pause, be still, and remember who does. Even if it is just for a moment amidst the chaos of each day, we are reminded that God holds our lives in His holy hands. Thankfully, I have sixty-four little reminders each day who help me remember to leave my pens and label makers aside, to look around me and see what is before me. Because sometimes we might remember those little moments more than we remember the perfect lesson plan. And I never planned for that, but I’m incredibly, gratefully, and continuously surprised by it.

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