It’s that time of year again. Pollen floats through the air and the days are growing warmer—at last. The semester that started in snow and ice ends with sunshine and bird songs. One of my favorite flowers—those bold, gold, trumpeting daffodils—pops us and announces the springtime. For academics, students and professors alike, the weather seems almost to tease us with its promises of lazy days and the realities of end-of-term projects. If I count the papers I have to grade right now, I might cry. But I can always blame my watery eyes on the pollen.

I can look back now and feel thankful for the ways this class challenged me, asking me again and again to rethink my materials and my approaches.As someone whose life has been meted out in semesters for quite some time now, there’s little to differentiate one term from the next. Spring semesters always feel harder, perhaps because they lack the promise of the Christmas season. There are fewer short breaks in lieu of the week off in March—and by now, that feels like ancient history. My mind is filled with calculations: how many papers to grade, how many final grades to compute, how many exams approaching for me to evaluate on the university’s slim timeline. And, for me, how many days until I need to be prepared for the next round of summer classes.

After 12 years of teaching collegiate classes, each semester runs into the next, in terms of overlapping preparations as well as my memories. Yet this semester, in addition to the requisite review for the final exam, one of my classes surprised me with a thank-you note on the last day. It’s quite lovely—hand-drawn with messages inside and colorful stickers on the outside. More than a few someones worked hard on this gift, and it means more because this course felt like such a struggle for me for most of the semester. It’s the kind of class where I kept second-guessing myself, reviewing our conversations after each session and then circling back in the next meeting.

We moved forward and backward and danced around, and while I was impressed with the way the students took the material seriously and invested themselves personally in the course content, it felt intimidating at times too. I spent much of the semester trying to be good enough and striving to meet all of their demands and expectations; it felt like tremendous pressure at times, but it’s been rewarding as well. It’s hard to explain to outsiders how the class came together as a community, how it became both a safe emotional space and a real working out of rigorous intellectual concepts. There was, at times, conflict, and that terrifies me. I am a person who withdraws from conflict, yet we got to a point where we could all talk about discomfort and actually grow. I think (fingers crossed) that real learning happened in this class in a way that it doesn’t always.

So it’s especially rewarding, given my own investment in this course, to be thanked. But the thing is, I didn’t do it alone. My students played a major role in building that trusting environment. And I like to think that things shifted when I stopped trying to do it all myself too, when, on the advice of a friend, I started to pray for the Holy Spirit to fill the space. And that’s a prayer God likes to answer, but it makes the movements strange and the people occupying the space vulnerable. I felt that too. And it reminded me that I really work for God.

I told my class I couldn’t read the card until I went to my office because I didn’t want to weep in front of them. I’m the sort of crier who only ever sobs (so I’m particularly embarrassing at movies), and I hope they understood the sentiment as well as the joke. I can look back now and feel thankful for the ways this class challenged me, asking me again and again to rethink my materials and my approaches. It’s the kind of self-reflection that can be very uncomfortable, and embracing those strange, mysterious movements of the spirit changed the way I occupied the space emotionally and intellectually as well. I felt thankful before I got their card, and their thankfulness feels like a particular gift, one I certainly can’t and don’t expect all the time. Because thankfulness, like the Spirit itself and a good education, changes our perspective and moves us outside of ourselves, in uncomfortable, nonlinear ways.