Lessons From a Familiar Place: The Beauty of Noticing Change

During my senior year in college, 22 years ago, I signed up for a course called “Body and Earth.” After three years of endless problem sets in my math and economics courses, I thought it would be fun to take a completely different type of class. During the first class, we were asked to take our shoes off and crawl across the floor of the studio to try to emulate primordial ooze. I immediately missed the familiar safety of my notebooks, my linear algebra problem sets, and my socks.

We were given a long-term assignment to find a place, go there every week for an uninterrupted hour to just be, and journal about our experience. I walked around campus for a while to find my place, looking for somewhere I wouldn’t be seen “being.” I settled on quiet, wooded area near a small creek that ran across the back corner of campus.

Diligently, I went to my place, and I sat. And I tried to just be. But each time, I quickly got bored. Really bored. I had other things to do. I never lasted a full hour. Like the other aspects of this class, this just wasn’t for me. Nevertheless, because I was a diligent student, I made sure to stop by my place each week, but only in a perfunctory way.

I didn’t think anything was happening in that place, during that class. Decades later, I think about that place quite a bit. I’ve realized that, unknowingly, I’ve adopted my own set of places in my life—locations I visit regularly, like my favorite jogging loop, the quiet spot on the river. Since I visit these places regularly, I am able to notice the ways they are the same and the ways they are different. I notice the ways in which they surprise or disappoint me in their deviation from my expectations, and the ways being there makes me feel.

I’ve come to recognize my math classroom as another place with its own familiar impermanence, and I’ve started searching for and noticing the changes within it.

The Classroom as a Place of Change

People often ask me, “Doesn’t it get boring doing the same thing every year? It’s not like calculus has changed in the last 350 years.” They don’t see the ways in which the math classroom is an evolving ecosystem full of its own set of mysteries. To be fair, such changes can be difficult to see. Like any place we know well, our classrooms can hide in a cloud of familiarity and comfort, which can sometimes make what’s new hard to see. And yet, year-to-year, student-to-student, bell-to-bell, the environment, the classroom is ever-changing and unpredictable.

I’ve learned now to pay close attention to the differences and resist the idea that there is a singular “best” way. I am often surprised, for example, at how two sections of the same course in the same school year can be completely different. Some days I will spend fifth period stumbling though the same activity that worked so smoothly with my third-period students just hours earlier. Earlier in my career, I tried to “fix” this. I tried to correct for whatever factor I believed made my fifth-period class so different from my third-period class. “P.E. let out late again!” Or, “Clearly the students are in a food coma from lunch!”

Change is the only constant in the classroom, which is why this sacred place continues to ground and inspire me. I find inspiration in the magical, unscripted moments where wonder, learning, and connection happen so purely that I’m able to appreciate something as though I’m seeing it for the first time. This can happen during the class where everything’s off, the one in which the bell can’t ring soon enough, in the one I never want to end. As I’ve learned to lean into this, and release my expectations of what class should be, I’ve been able to arrive willing and ready to adapt. This has served me greatly in the last few years.

I don’t need to explain all the ways our school communities are different places than they were just a few years ago. The world is different, too. And so am I; we all are. Many things we thought we knew seem so unfamiliar. I know many of us educators have struggled to let go of our expectations of what we once thought school should be.      

It’s hard and scary to consider that it could be different––or maybe even needs to be different. But it’s also exciting. We need to revisit our assumptions about how schools should be as we look at the fast-evolving world around us and think about what it means to create human-centered learning communities in 2024.

Finding My Permanent Sense of Place

At the end of my senior year of college, I went back to my place by the stream. I’m not sure why. Maybe I was feeling guilty for not giving “Body and Earth” the time it deserved. Things felt different when I went back. The golden leaves that had greeted me in the fall were gone. The trees now bore small, crisp, green foliage and the earth was wet and smelled of the possibility of summer.

I was about to graduate, pack the contents of my dorm into my two-door hatchback, and drive 200 miles to my first full-time teaching position. There was no way to expect it at the time, but I was about to find my new place: a classroom that would be what the wooded spot by the stream never had the chance to become. I wish I could report that I lingered in my place on that last day and had some sort of beautiful moment. The truth is I didn’t stay long. However, that place, that assignment, has stayed with me––and has made me a better teacher.

Jessica Wasilewski

Jessica Wasilewski is a principal at John Burroughs School in St. Louis, Missouri.