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Teaching With Grace, Learning With Dignity

January 26, 2016 / by Sean McComb

We've all been there -- a momentary, frustrated reaction to a student that's more curt, less kind, and more gruff than it ought to be. Its roots are embedded somewhere in our lack of sleep, or a floundering lesson, or unforgiving piles of paperwork. And it's a reaction immediately regretted, but unable to be undone.

We're flawed human beings. So are our students. The work is challenging for everyone, so these moments happen.

I've learned how that moment can irreversibly color a student's experience in our classrooms, like food coloring staining a glass of water. For children -- too often bearing burdens of anxiety, a challenging home life, or the common self-doubts of adolescence -- the last thing they need is for a teacher to be an adversary in their learning. Yet, I still occasionally make these mistakes. But I've also made the choice to be intentional in limiting and countering them. I've made the choice to focus on teaching with grace, so that students can learn with dignity.

Grace

The word grace can conjure multiple meanings: a movement, like that of a ballerina. A polite and pleasant charm, like in those my grandmother would refer to as "gentlemen." Or a divine gift of unmerited favor and forgiveness. What links all of these associations, according to Sarah Kaufman, is a warm and welcoming presence, a sense of compassion and openness; not our first flush of feeling, but a polished gift of generosity.
One of the great gifts of teaching

In my classroom, grace means giving students second (and third, and fourth) chances. It means making the effort to remember students may carry a burden unknown to me, and thus my giving them the benefit of kindness. It's making the choice to be in a good mood every day. And if that's ever beyond me, owning that fact and apologizing to my students. It's training myself to look for and celebrate the best in each of them. And if a student is oppositional or infringes on another's ability to learn, I have an opportunity to teach -- through patience and a restorative approach -- what might be the most valuable lesson of the year.

Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald captured the essence of grace most eloquently in The Great Gatsby, saying Gatsby's presence offered "an irresistible prejudice in your favor ... [Gatsby] believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself."

This presence, this sense of grace, absolutely matters for students. In concrete terms, a sense of belonging in a pleasant and supportive environment is regularly linked to increased motivation and productivity. For complex and challenging work, like learning and growing, we thrive with support. Though the benefits of working with those who are compassionate, patient, and supportive are well known, the nature of teaching can make it difficult for us to embody those qualities every day. We're pressed from so many directions. It can be difficult to access grace under pressure, which is why we need intentionality. We can grow our grace.

Train Your Brain

The Tetris Effect is a phenomenon in which people devote so much time to an activity that it patterns their thoughts. Author Shawn Achor points to using this pattern building to shape our habits. Our minds may naturally be drawn to disappointments, but if we make the choice to find the positives, we can train the brain to see them before the negatives.

Before I knew the research, in the throws and tumult of my first year teaching, I formed a habit that has served me well. At the end of the school day, rather than allowing my mind to meander to my mistakes, I chose to think about students who did well, contributed, or helped someone else that day. I wrote them little notes of gratitude and encouragement on Post-its. This practice has not only been celebrated by my students, but has also helped me be grateful for what they bring to class, to see the positives in my work, and hold on to the joy of teaching during difficult times. It’s nearly impossible to express grace to students with a mind fixed on the negative. It's a worthy investment to find, see, and celebrate the positive.

Seeds of Grace in Self-Care

Kaufman notes that the seeds of grace are rooted in one’s internal spirit, an internal grace that preempts its external expression. Grace doesn’t surface when we're overworked, underprepared, and lack rest and balance. A lesson I find myself relearning, as I sit up at night trying to figure out how to get enough feedback to students and get (at least) six hours of sleep, is that sacrificing sleep also means sacrificing my ability to be at my best during my face-to-face time with students. When I fix my blurry eyes on the clock, I try to remember: get your sleep to give your best.

I'm at my most graceful in the classroom when I'm intentional outside the classroom investing in myself -- when I protect my time to exercise, when I read for pleasure, when I wrestle on the carpet with my son. And, also, when I invest in relationships -- giving my wife unrequested indulgences, bringing a snack in for my colleagues, having dinner with a friend. When I'm good about balance (which is easy to write and hard to live), I benefit from the fruits of grace, which Kaufman describes as a state of "being grateful, of being warm, of thinking before I speak, of self-control, which lends grace that kind of quietness, that unobtrusiveness."

Grace and Dignity

The intersection of teaching with grace and students' dignity has been on my mind recently. As the parent of a toddler, I've had my eyes opened when friends share concerns about their children's sense of shame when they're moved "down" a public behavior chart in front of their peers. And I've always held on to an experience I witnessed in my teacher prep program, when I watched a teacher berate a student. That student withdrew and disengaged for the remainder of the time I observed that classroom.

This summer, I listened to Ta-Nehisi Coates interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air. As is his way, he was able to articulate an experience I haven't known in a way that brought me to greater consciousness. In this excerpt from his talk with Terri Gross, Coates voices a student perspective that all teachers would be wise to heed:

Coates: I go to school 9th grade year, in my high school, and I got suspended for threatening a teacher.

Gross: I was gonna ask you about that, because you refer to that in your new book, and I don't feel like I understand why that happened.

Coates: I felt like he disrespected me.

Gross: By doing what?

Coates: He yelled at me in front of the class. Really, really loudly. And, again, this was the sort of thing that you couldn't tolerate.

Gross: [laughing] That is what teachers do, sometimes.

Coates: I know. I know. It sounds like you're laughing because it's funny if you've never been in an environment where all you have is your dignity. That's all you have. Teachers yell loudly at kids from time to time. You're exactly right. But if you live in an environment, if you're, ya know, from a place where all you have is the basic physical respect, "You will talk to me in a respectful way," you don't have anything else to lean on… that's very serious. That's really really really serious. If someone yelled at me now, I'd sort of walk away and laugh. Well, I've accumulated certain things. I have certain things. I have a family. I feel great personal value in myself and in my work and in what I do. I feel deeply loved by everyone around me. I don't feel like I live in a particularly violent environment. I wouldn't perceive being yelled at as necessarily communicating to other people around me that they, too, could disrespect me at any moment.

I hope those of you reading this have already committed to not yell at children. Unless there is an imminent physical threat, there is a better way. But this is a vital reminder of the vulnerability that many children carry into the classroom, and the responsibility we have to respect all children for their rightful human dignity.

This damage is not done solely by raising one's voice. The impetus for this post is that a friend recently contacted me to share a challenge with her daughter. A teacher had been reading aloud, to the class, how students had improved their scores with test corrections. It was, possibly, a well-meaning attempt to celebrate growth. But when she got to my friend’s daughter, the teacher muttered a sarcastic and dismissive remark to garner a chuckle from the class. Imagine, for a moment, being sixteen and subjected to that experience. My friend learned of the event when she investigated why her daughter was crying in her bedroom that night.

One of the great gifts of teaching is our ability to inspire others to flourish into their best selves. But there's also a great responsibility in knowing that from our position we can cause great harm. And we walk in the tension between these truths every day. Regardless of our personal circumstances and challenges, we have the chance to make the choice, every day, to be our most compassionate, patient, giving selves; to teach with grace. For children looking to adults to not only teach them skills, but to model how to be in the world, I can't imagine a more important lesson.

Topics: Class Culture, Classroom Community, Building Relationships, Classroom Management

Sean McComb

Written by Sean McComb

Sean McComb teaches English at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts in the Baltimore County Public Schools System. Sean also supports the development of teaching and learning for Baltimore County's STAT Initiative. He is affiliated with the Maryland Writing Project, NCTE, Learning Forward, National Network of State Teachers of the Year, and ISTE. Sean is the 2014 National Teacher of the Year and is a Teaching Channel Laureate. Connect with Sean on Twitter: @Mr_McComb.

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