The Most Important Lesson Your Students Can Learn From You

Notice I said “can learn from you” not “that you can teach” in the title. That’s because this lesson is not one you explicitly teach. It’s not on tests. I’m not even sure how you’d assess it.

But it’s important.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood

The most important lesson your students can learn from you is this:

Grace.

Grace is a gentleness that costs you very little. It’s a flexibility. It’s assuming the best of your students without demanding anything.

But the only way your students will learn it from you is if you live it. So, how do you live grace as a teacher?

There’s two main kinds of grace you can exhibit as a teacher: structural grace and interpersonal grace. (please note I’m just making these terms up)

Structural Grace

Structural grace is what you build into your course, absent a student in front of you. This is the grace you exhibit by design. This is located in the syllabus, in your assignments and policies.

Do you have a late policy? Is it generous enough to allow for students in emergency situations without having to bend it? That’s structural grace.

Do you require documentation for absences? For K-12 teachers, requiring documentation for absences may be a matter of bureaucratic necessity, and it may even be a kind of grace, because it makes sure that the students are in safe situations. But for post-secondary education, not requiring documentation is a kind of grace. Those students are adults, and treating them with trust is a kind of grace. It teaches them that they’re worthy of being trusted, and encourages them to become the kind of people who are worthy of being trusted.

Do you have a revision policy? As well as a good learning experience, revision policies can be a location of structural grace, allowing for second chances and redemption.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from StockSnap

Interpersonal Grace

This grace is a pattern of how you react to your students as they stand before you. This happens in the day-to-day decisions you make as a teacher.

This is how you respond when, for instance, a student asks for an extension. Certainly there are times you can’t offer one—when, for instance, you are up against an unforgiving grade submission deadline. But in many cases, there’s no real cost to you to offer an extension when asked. That’s grace.

This is how you respond when, for instance, you notice that a student seems to be hiding something from you that might be impacting their work. You can express concern about their work, but grace also means not pressing for more details than you need to be kind. And the fact is that you don’t need a lot of details to be kind. The rest of the details? You can fill those in for yourself. You can imagine a hundred scenarios.

For instance, if a student says “I’m sorry my work is late. I’ve been having a hard time. Can I still turn it in?”

You don’t need to interrogate them about the hard time. You can invite them to share, of course, but don’t press. Grace is assuming that they have a good reason for it—perhaps the student was assaulted or stalked, and doesn’t know how to talk about it, or perhaps the student is dealing with a yet-undiagnosed medical condition, so they don’t even have words to talk about it. You don’t know, nor do you need to know. You just need to know that they had the maturity to ask for help. That alone should be sufficient.

Imagine, for instance, you find a plagiarism problem in student work. You could assume that they’re trying to gain an unfair advantage, and seek to punish them. Or, you could enter the situation assuming that the student misunderstood the assignment or the rhetorical situation, or assuming that the student panicked for some reason perhaps unrelated to your course. The second set of assumptions is more conducive to gracious behavior. It’s also more likely to make you like your students, honestly.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from StockSnap

What Will Students Learn From Grace?

Much of this advice flies in the face of standard wisdom about education. Most people seem to believe that education must be rigid, rigorous, and authoritative. But this sets up a students vs teachers mentality, in which students are trying to outsmart their teachers, who are trying to keep them in perfectly uniform order.

Here’s the thing: I don’t remember the teachers who enforced rules rigidly much. They were there, but they’ve faded into a blur to me. There are, in general, two kinds of teachers that I remember. There’s the really awful ones, the ones who seemed to pride themselves in being cruel or callous. Teaching was their power trip, or a means to an end for them. Some of them have tenure! I remember them clearly—I have them filed in my brain as “Do not be like these people.” I have made numerous career decisions specifically in the pursuit of not becoming these people. You do not want to be on this list.

But the other category of teachers I truly remember are the ones who showed grace, and I remember them more often and more fondly, of course. These are the ones who treated me as someone who had agency in my own education. The ones who treated me as an intelligent, feeling human being. The ones who made me feel noticed and listened to.

From these teachers, I learned how to be a teacher. From these teachers, I learned that deadlines are important, but that people are more important. From these teachers, I learned that kindness matters, and that it even gets things done. I learned from these teachers that kindness is not weakness, but rather strength.

And, perhaps most importantly, I learned that my teachers were humans too. And that made me a better student.

It’s not complicated, but it does take practice. So, practice grace. There’s no better time for it than now, as many of us are in finals season in what’s probably the most remarkable and tumultuous term we have ever seen.

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