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Grace in our teaching: Recognizing strength

21 Nov

“The winds of grace are always blowing, it is for us to raise our sails.”


Before diving in, consider that you have a choice here: You can enter these thoughts with grace…or not. If you do, you might catch a wind that takes you somewhere. If you don’t, you might miss an opportunity to explore someplace new. What would it take for you to raise your sails? What will you choose?

You have a gift, a strength that nobody recognizes. But you have other characteristics that we are quick to notice – characteristics that we interpret as deficient. Because we don’t recognize your gift, we overlook you. We tolerate you. We patronize you. We might “support” you (of course you need to be supported) because we see your challenges without recognizing your strengths. We might even pity you.

You are disabled. We disable you.

Stop here for just a minute and consider: How does that paragraph make you feel? Can you imagine? Where might grace serve you in this?

This blog’s November 7 post Motivation: Created by teachers *and* students refers to an Edutopia article that reminds us that many of us have forgotten how we got to be so smart and how we learned while walking the sometimes arduous path to get here from so many theres. The blog author suggests that we might want to reflect on what it’s like to learn something new. This suggestion sounds an awful lot like an invitation into empathy. Where there’s an opportunity for new learning, so is there an opportunity for empathy, and with these, the possibility of grace exists.

Validation and strength

Abby Wambach is a recently-retired professional soccer player who scored more international goals than any player ever. She has won Olympic gold medals, World Cup championships, and has been named U.S. Soccer’s Athlete of the Year six times. Anyone who has experienced soccer will understand the strength required to play the sport at all. Now imagine playing at the top of an elite level of competition. It’s the epitome of strength.

Wambach describes her journey by talking about how, as the youngest of six children in her family, soccer was a way for her to be valued, to be seen. She says soccer was a way for her to be validated from her years as a youth athlete all the way through her professional career. And as a lesbian in a Catholic family that wasn’t particularly “friendly” toward her lesbian identity, she felt like soccer gave her an identity that was valued.

Valued. Validated. Both start with “val” – Is there a connection?, I wondered. Turns out, there is:

  • Value: “be worth,” from Latin valere “be strong, be well; be of value, be worth”
  • Valid/validate:  from Latin validus “strong, effective, powerful, active,” from valere “be strong”

Both ideas include strength. Which of course begs some questions. Among them:

  • What is strength or our perception of it?
  • What is the opposite of strength?
  • Where do our understandings of those ideas come from?
  • Are we willing to challenge them?
  • How does MY understanding of strength and its opposite, shape YOU?  
  • And, how does any of this apply to our role in motivation?


Empathy is the heart’s imagination. It starts with “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”. And if we stop there, we can continue to hold “someone else” at a distance and still see them as “other”. Empathy draws us closer by asking us to imagine the experience of this other person. And by this imagining, we create a shared experience that blurs the boundary between us.

Empathizing calls on us to see each other as worthy. Worthy of our attention, worthy of opportunity, worthy of belonging, worthy of love. And when it comes down to it, isn’t teaching an act of love?

Seeing each other as worthy of these things might lead to compassionate action. When we get to compassionate action, I think what we’re experiencing is grace.

Meeting where each of us is

My conception of grace is that we are bound together in a covenant with one another, that we know that every one of us is beautiful and whole and that our beauty includes many gifts, that we share our gifts with one another, and that we gladly receive each other’s generosity.

Not everyone experiences our classes and resources in the same ways. Some people learn from printed words, others from visual data. Some people read, some people listen, some people touch. As instructors, it’s our job to meet those people where they are. That can be a challenge given our workloads. And this challenge is an opportunity to meet more students in ways that make learning more possible for them. The challenge is an invitation into grace.

Extending for benefit of others

As we stretch ourselves to meet others where they are, we extend ourselves so that others might learn in ways that best suit them. When we stretch and extend, we relate from a place of abundance. A place where there is “enough”; where our generosity enlarges what’s available in each of us, to all of us. If a student with a disability emails you asking for class-related videos to be captioned, it might be easy to scoff at the request because of your workload and “all your other students”. A reaction like this comes from a place of scarcity; a place where “not enough” wins the day. It stands in stark contrast to the abundance of generosity. The request for captioning is an invitation to practice abundance and grace – to meet that student where they are – in the interest of our commitment to one another.

Empathizing to grow strong

Grace and love take us back to strength and Abby Wambach’s desire to be valued, to be validated, to be powerful, to be worth. Strength is something often missing from our notion of “disabled”. This comes from a gross misunderstanding of both the idea of disability and the idea of strength. In the previous post, Accessing Curiosity, Insubordination and Courage, I argued that the story “to be disabled” stops short. But the story, “to be disabled by…” invites complexity, context, and reflection on the more complete story. We disable each other in ways that keep some people “stronger” than others. That makes us all responsible rather than making disability about “the other”.

We misunderstand strength when we overlook worthiness and the courage it requires as strong.  We may not recognize strength when we constrain our perception of it to our own experiences. We minimize strength when we fail to empathize with one another, when we fail to act with grace. (Consider paragraph #2 of this post.)

And if we choose not to empathize, not to act from grace: we oppress. We continue to teach in ways that maintain our privileges and our supremacies. We continue to duck our responsibilities. We continue to make it more difficult for some people to express and share their strength.

When that student emails you about captioning, will you respond in a way that invalidates and devalues them? That tells them you see weakness in who they are? That tells them they’re not worthy, not enough? Or will you respond with grace and love in a way that allows you to see their strengths and gifts as also valid and valued? And what of your students’ interpretations of your response? What impact might your choice have on your students’ strengths?

A muscular, courageous call to action

  • Practice empathy – I know from my own experience that not all of us are born empathizers. Becoming empathy experts isn’t the goal; practicing it is. Practice by spending one more minute with your student, asking questions that help you understand their experience then imagine their experience in your class.
  • Practice grace – Challenge yourself to see strength in places you might normally miss it. To what extent is there strength in the student who talks too much? In the student who we consider disabled? In the C student?
  • Practice love – When you’ve imagined your student’s experience and acknowledged our commitment to one another, extend yourself in new ways that create environments where more of your students can feel a stronger sense of belonging; where they can feel stronger, period.

These actions will require courage. And they will require strength. Maybe more importantly, they will inspire courage and inspire strength in our students. And those are certainly among the most important learning outcomes we can strive for.

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