Be part of bigger picture

The store shelves are lined with school supplies, advertising their lowest prices. Parents are making plans to drop their children off for the first day of classes. Excitement and nostalgia are in the air. In other words, it’s an early form of Christmas for me.

Each year, as August rolls around, I create my list of supplies and giddily head to the stores, prepared to organize my way through the semester. Planner, binders with pocket dividers – check. Pens and markers – check. This year, there’s an added step: course syllabi and assignment sheets, orientations, double and triple checks for technology and media projects. It’s all part of that exciting hum that become the chaos of the first weeks of school.

But in a time charged with political and racial turmoil, when students are experiencing a mixture of emotions and entering college laden by familial beliefs while trying to navigate and develop their own ideals, the naiveté prevalent in my own little checklist shines forth.

As I anticipate the (hopefully) shining faces that I’ll meet in my classes, I’m also aware of their needs as young adults just entering into a new phase of their development – a life apart from their families, a life in which they must take responsibility for their decisions as they find out they can no longer depend on mom and dad to back them up.

In my classroom, students will, of course, encounter a safe space. But they’ll also encounter a sense of community. We’ll talk about the life-changing events that are occurring in their hometowns and in the world around us. But we’ll also talk about strategies for problem-solving and dialoguing with respect when we encounter conflicting opinions.

On one level, when I think about the tasks I’ve outlined for myself in the first weeks of school, I recall our faith’s focus on the dignity and respect that we have for all people. And I question whether I actually need to spend time on these aspects. But then I open my web browser and see the world in which we live, and I know that I’m doing my duty as a professor in the humanities.

In one of the orientations I attended as new faculty, the dean shared a metaphor for his expectation of us in the classroom. A traveler was walking up hill and came across a man hauling a cart filled with bricks and stone. As the traveler caught up with him, he asked, “What are you doing?” The laborer didn’t bother to look up, but answered gruffly, “What does it look like? I’m hauling bricks.” The traveler was surprised, but continued on his way and encountered another man hauling another cart. He asked this person the same question. The second laborer looked up and smiled before replying, “I’m building a cathedral.” Whereas the first laborer couldn’t see past the labor of the task he was currently completing, the second laborer not only saw the larger picture but was proud of his role in it.

As I look back over my lesson plans for the first unit, I’m certain that I, too, am building a cathedral. I’m shaping my students not only for my course, but for the people our world desperately needs.

Dr. Heather Bozant Witcher can be reached at

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