‘Grace’ is no longer enough

BY WENDI PILLARS, Guest columnist
Posted 3/10/21

Ever hear of the Sorites Paradox?

“Sorites” derives from the Greek word for heap and ponders precisely when removing a single grain from a heap of sand makes it not a heap. We’re talking …

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‘Grace’ is no longer enough

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Ever hear of the Sorites Paradox?

“Sorites” derives from the Greek word for heap and ponders precisely when removing a single grain from a heap of sand makes it not a heap. We’re talking vague boundaries and unspoken agreements on just what constitutes a non-heap. Kind of like determining what number of coins, when aggregated together, finally makes someone wealthy. Or what number of days or years constitutes being old. Cultural context, circumstances, understanding, personal experiences, and individual and group perceptions all play a role in these often subconscious decisions.

As a teacher, however, I’ve been applying this paradox to the concept of grace. We’ve been in pandemic mode for one year now. At what point does “grace” contribute to imbalance in our students and system? At what point does “grace” become enabling, coddling, and excusing a lack of effort rather than an empathic pathway to success in life skills?

It’s the end of the first six weeks of the semester, which means grades are due. I still have students on my roster whom I’ve never met, who have never done an ounce of work, and who have not responded to my outreach efforts. They have pure, unadulterated zeroes in my class. As a teacher, it is hurtful to think I was unable to even reach these students at the most basic and literal levels. I have always prided myself on being able to reach students, so this is doubly agonizing for me because I’m sure there’s “something more” I could have done.

Then there are students with single-digit percentage grades for the past six weeks because they simply did not submit sufficient work. Despite reminders, conversations in class, what seem to be positive relationships in person, and an inordinately slower instructional pace than I would typically move, these students readily admit they were just lazy or didn’t make the time.

Now, after crafting curriculum to meet the needs of zoomies and roomies, students on medical leave, students on quarantine, students with “when-I-feel-like-it” attendance, students who need paper packets, and all the outreach entailed for support and MIA students/ work, I am required to give these students a 50% for their first six weeks.

For doing next to nothing, or flat-out nothing.

How is this serving our students? Yes, I fully understand that I don’t know what they’re going through, and I admit that I will never fully know, but I talk to my students every day they’re with me, conduct surveys, and provide space the best way I know how. I ask them how they’re really doing, and if there is anything I need to know. The majority tell me everything is good, enhanced with emojis and smiley faces, even if they’ve done no work. Challenging analysis, for sure.

I love engaging in work that stretches and challenges me, but this is different. One year on and this status quo is enforcing mediocrity and a basic lack of accountability in what has become a new normal. We can only imagine what the “next normal” will bring, but I’m willing to bet students will always need to complete work to demonstrate what they know and understand, whether or not they feel like it.

As adults, we know that this is a vital life skill. Consistently putting yourself in uncomfortable places and learning to do hard things when it’s inconvenient is preparation for the unknown, to be prepared to face potentially life-changing opportunities that pop up, both positive and negative. Experiencing appropriate levels of discomfort is practice for moments when you really need to perform. If you can learn to push through and read an article or analyze a graph that’s new and challenging, even if you don’t feel like it, then guess what? You’re practicing for life.

If you can learn to push through and actually come to school on the two days you’re expected to, even if you’re tired, then guess what? You’re practicing for life.

But we’re allowing excuses to occur through the lens of grace. And it’s not a long-term solution.

Instead, we are marking students “present” even if they’re signing in from home on the days they should physically be in class, giving them carte blanche for doing nothing, and no penalties for work that is five weeks late. Because we “don’t know” what they’re going through. We can’t continue to say these are the standards or expectations “sometimes.” The soft, blurry lines and extensive forgiveness make our job far more difficult. Ultimately, capitulating and giving giving giving “grace” will shift from investing time to wasting time by compromising and enforcing weak expectations.

My pulse check today is whether I can keep doing this sustainably. With my integrity at bay, compromising the values that fuel me as an educator, in order to meet the invisible needs of students I’ve never met is far from sustainable. There are few areas in adulting that don’t have some element of working, performing, or creating under pressure, with systems and processes in place.

I hope you understand if I prioritize my finite energies on students who are willing to try, who are present even in small ways, and who have the self-respect to be minimally accountable even when it’s hard. Maybe it’s a couth warrior mentality at this point, but how else to prepare minds for moments when they need to be brilliant, courageous, and strong?

Wendi Pillars leans on decades of teaching in varied global settings, with a special place in her heart for English Language learners, visual creativity and the science of our planet. She is the author of the newly published Visual Impact: Transform Communication in Your Boardroom, Classroom or Living Room. Find her on Twitter @wendi322.


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