The Lesson of Grace in Teaching
Updated: Feb 11, 2021
[This speech is one of my most popular pieces of writing. I've moved it from my original blog, where it was housed for many years.]
After giving this talk, I had so many requests for the text that I shared it on Facebook. But Facebook deleted it. So I created a blog just for this. I hope you find it helpful.
It was the hardest thing I ever had to write: because it is deeply personal, truly me, and about my biggest life lesson... given at a conference in front of hundreds of people who, I'm sure, struggle with the same things that I do.
The Lesson of Grace in Teaching
From weakness to wholeness, the struggle and the hope
Francis Edward Su
MAA Haimo Teaching Award Lecture Joint Math Meetings, January 11, 2013
An audio file is available: bit.ly/W4gyD0. Published in print in the Princeton University Press anthology The Best Writing on Mathematics 2014.
"We know truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart." ---Blaise Pascal
I’m honored but I’m also really humbled to be giving this talk to a room full of great teachers, because I know that EACH of you have a rich and unique perspective on teaching. I had to ask myself: could I really tell YOU anything significant about teaching?
So: I decided instead to talk about something else, that at first may appear to have nothing to do with teaching, and yet it has everything to do with teaching.
I want to talk about the biggest life lesson that I have learned, and that I continue to learn over and over again. It is deep and profound. It has changed the way I relate with people. It has reshaped my academic life. And it continually renovates the way I approach my students.
And perhaps it will help you frame your own thoughts about teaching. The beginning of that lesson is this:
Your accomplishments are NOT what make you a worthy human being.
It sounds easy for me to say, especially after having some measure of academic ‘success’ and winning this teaching award.
But twenty years ago, I was a struggling grad student, seeking validation for my mathematical talent but flailing in my research, seeking my identity in my work but discouraged enough to quit. My advisor had even said to me:
“You don’t have what it takes to be a successful mathematician.”
It was my lowest point. Weak and weary, with my identity and my pride stripped away and my PhD nearly out of reach, I realized then that my identity and self-worth could NOT rest on whether I succeeded or failed to get my PhD. So *IF* I were to continue in mathematics, I could not do it for any acclaim that I might receive or for the trappings of what the academic world would call success. I should only do it because math is beautiful, and I feel drawn to it. In my quiet moments, with no one watching, I still found math fun to think about. So I was convinced it was my calling, despite the hurtful thing my advisor had said.
So did I quit? No. I just changed advisors.
This time, I chose differently. Persi Diaconis was an inspiring teacher. More than that, he had shown me a great kindness a couple of years before. The semester I took a class from him, my mother died and I needed an extension on my work. I’ll never forget his response: “I’m really sorry about your mother. Let me take you to coffee.”
I remember thinking: “I’m just some random student and he’s taking me to coffee?” But I really needed that talk. We pondered life and its burdens, and he shared some of his own journey. For me, in a challenging academic environment, with enormous family struggles, to connect with my professor on a deeper level was a great comfort. Yes, Persi was an inspiring teacher, but this simple act of kindness---of authentic humanness---gave me a greater capacity and motivation to learn from him, because we had entered into authentic community with each other, as teacher and student, who were real people to each other.
So when the time came to change advisors, I decided to work with Persi, even though it meant completely starting over in a new area. Only in hindsight did I realize why I had gravitated to him. It’s because he showed me grace.
GRACE: good things you didn’t earn or deserve, but you’re getting them anyway.
By taking me to coffee, he had shown me he valued me as a human being, independent of my academic record. And having my worthiness separated from my performance gave me great freedom! I could truly enjoy learning again. Whether I succeeded or failed would not affect my worthiness as a human being. Because even if I failed, I knew: I am still worth having coffee with!
Knowing my new advisor had grace for me meant that he could give me honest feedback on my dissertation work, even if it was hard to do, without completely destroying my identity. Because, as I was learning, my worthiness does NOT come from my accomplishments. I call this
The Lesson of GRACE: Your accomplishments are NOT what make you a worthy human being. You learn this lesson when someone shows you GRACE: good things you didn't earn or deserve, but you're getting them anyway.
I have to learn this lesson over and over again. You can have worthiness apart from your performance. You can have dignity independent of achievements. Your identity does not have to be rooted in accomplishments. You can be loved for who you are, not for what you’ve done---somebody just has to show you grace.
You are worth having coffee with!
Now the academic world does not make it easy to learn this lesson. Especially when so much of academic success depends on achievement. Grades, PhD, publishing papers, getting tenure. And we are applauded for those achievements. We crave that applause! So it’s tempting to be drawn into this trap of needing my achievements to justify me.
So even now, as I receive this award, I must hold fast to this lesson. I must not cling to this award too tightly. It does not GIVE me dignity... because if someone showed me grace, I’d realize I already HAD dignity.
Don’t get me wrong... I’m not saying that achievement shouldn’t be rewarded. There IS a place for credentials in academia. We would not want to hear a talk by someone without credentials. We would not want to graduate students who didn’t have skills. But achievement, in its rightful place, is NOT where we should derive our ultimate sense of identity and self-worth, and we need to have a healthy separation between achievement and worthiness.
If I could really believe this then it gives me great freedom! I can do math SIMPLY because I enjoy it, not because I have to perform. I don’t have to be “the best”. I can stop being so hard on myself. I can have a healthy ambition without competition: striving towards goals, without having to compare myself to other people. I can be happy for another person’s success. I can be appropriately open and authentic---I don’t have to fear showing weakness. Because my worthiness isn’t earned, there’s no need and no room for pretense. I can stop worrying about what others will think of me, if I believe the lesson of grace.
Grace gives people dignity they don’t have to earn.
Grace seems simple but it is such a deep concept. Once you recognize it you begin to see it everywhere. Some might recognize grace as a part of many of the world’s great religions. That makes sense, because at its core it’s a theological concept, making a claim about who we are as human beings, and why. In my own religious view, I see Jesus as the ultimate giver and source of grace, endowing all human beings with worth and dignity that they don’t have to earn. But whether you are religious or not, everyone can give, receive, and be drawn to grace, graceful actions and its lessons. Because grace gives people dignity they don’t have to earn.
What does this life lesson have to do with teaching? Well, if life is one gigantic learning experience, then you’d expect any life lesson we learn would shape our teaching. But the lesson of grace has remarkable implications. Here are 4 ways that I see grace can shape our teaching. These go from easiest to hardest: giving grace to students, understanding grace in our teaching, communicating grace in the struggle, and sharing grace in our weakness.
Giving GRACE to our STUDENTS:
What does it mean to give grace to our students?
The first example is something we already all do. What do you when you want to be nice to your students and you want to wake them up and 8am in the morning? Yes, you give them donuts! They didn’t have to earn that. That’s grace! (Except on evaluation day---then it’s a bribe.)
Here’s another way we show grace to our students---learning their names. By naming people, you give them DIGNITY. Imagine the other possibility: suppose you only learn the names of the people who are getting A’s, or coming to office hours. That’s not grace, because it only dignifies only the people who EARN it.
Spend time with students outside class. That’s grace: it’s a good thing they didn’t have to earn. As long as it’s not just the best students you hang out with, then it’s grace.
I have often given fun exam questions: students can earn some easy points just by sharing the most interesting thing learned in the class, or a question they’d like to pursue further. Or “write a poem about a concept in this course.” Or “Imagine you are writing a column for the newspaper ‘great ideas in math’. What would you put in it?”
These are graceful questions. They really didn’t have to earn those points, and they’re having fun while doing it.
And of course, sharing the joy of mathematics is grace. And going off on tangents in class. Many of you know that I have a collection of “math fun facts”. I have often started off calculus lectures with 5-minute “math fun facts” that have nothing to do with calculus, just to get students excited about mathematics. This is a graceful action. Because going off-topic communicates something to students: that they can learn math just because it’s cool, not because they have to “get through some material” that they’ll be tested on.
There’s a website where you can find my collection (google 'Math Fun Facts' to find it), and if you prefer a mobile version, there’s an app for that!
Understanding GRACE in our TEACHING:
If we fully understand the lesson of grace, then we’ll understand: since my performance doesn’t define me, I don’t have to be the center of attention in my classroom. I can do experimental things, and fail. I can get out of the way of my students... I can open up the classroom for things like inquiry-based learning. I don’t have to be in control of everything. I don’t have to worry about what people will think of me.
I’ll give a recent example of where I had to think about these things. A couple of years ago, a former student came to me with an idea. He was creating an online learning platform, and wanted to pair up videos of my Real Analysis course with scrolling notes and social learning features, and I said: that’s interesting... what would it involve? He said: we would just have to record your class and put it on YouTube! And I hesitated.
Then he said, it would cool if my class could try out the software and he could run some experiments... and what he was suggesting sounded to me like a radical overhaul of the way I would teach my class. And it made me nervous. This is getting to be a bit much, I thought.
But upon reflection, what I realized is the only reason I hesitated is because I was fearful of losing control, fearful of crazy internet comments and what others would think of me. And I could extend him a great grace by helping him pursue his passion.
So I agreed to have the class taped. What’s interesting is the unexpected grace that occurred as a result of the YouTube experiment. The students were excited about it. They loved the fact they could watch the videos later. They didn’t stop coming to class, as I had worried about. And to my surprise, I began to get grateful e-mail from people around the world. Many of them didn’t have access to a university, were facing particular economic hardships, or learned best when they could pause and rewind lectures.
For them the videos were a grace they didn’t have to earn. I had thought at the beginning of the semester, I would just take down the videos at the end, because I was so worried. But I never took them down, because I realized they are serving a needed function for the least fortunate in our global community, and for people who learn differently.
Communicating GRACE in the STRUGGLE:
I want to demonstrate to my students that their worthiness does NOT depend on the grades they earn in my class. Of course, I want to give my C students the same attention that my A students get. But if I am really honest with myself, I have to admit I like talking to A students, because they “get it”... they already speak the same language.
But what credit is it to me as a teacher, if I only affirm the students who already “get it”? It’s easy to affirm the student who asks great questions in class, but I must be thoughtful about how can I affirm the questions from a struggling student. Or the one who comes from a different cultural background. Or the one whose educational system didn’t provide them with the tools they need. How can I affirm these students?
I like to tell them the struggle is the more interesting place to be: because a healthy confusion is where the real learning begins. Just like in life, the most meaningful lessons are learned when our afflictions and struggles are greatest.
But I want to be clear: I am not saying extending grace is a recipe for helping my students feel good about themselves. I am saying it will help them have a right understanding about themselves. So if my students know in their bones that I have given them a dignity that is independent of their performance, then I can have honest conversations with them about their performance. I can judge their work justly AND graciously. In fact, failing a student CAN be done with grace, so that the student understands their dignity has not been tarnished even though their work has been justly assessed---just as a parent can discipline her child if the child knows her love is unconditional. Grace is precisely what makes hard conversations possible, and productive, between people. But you have to extend the grace first.
I want the failing student to understand clearly that grades are just an assessment, not a sentence. I try to meet with every failing student in person, and I will explicitly articulate the distinction between their grade, and their worthiness. I will often give them this explicit word of encouragement: that while grades attempt to measure what you have learned, they do not measure your dignity as an individual.
Sharing GRACE in our WEAKNESS:
I don’t mind telling students that I almost didn’t make it in graduate school. Because I understand that my worthiness is not in my accomplishments, I don’t fear that people will think less of me. I know what it means to enter a program with a weaker background than my peers, to feel woefully underprepared, to feel misunderstood, to have family pressures that somehow became paramount. To wonder if I was really cut out for this profession. So I know that weakness can be powerful when a former student shares:
"He gave me the single most important piece of advice I got before heading to graduate school, which greatly shaped how my mathematical career developed. It occurred when I asked him about his graduate school days, which surprising as it may be, did not go very smoothly for him! He confessed to me that at one point he considered dropping out of Harvard! The lesson he learned was to pick an advisor you can ... thrive with, even to the sacrifice of a particular subject or project. I took this advice to heart... and as a result I thrived in graduate school which has directly resulted in my early career success as well."
This is from a student who was not the top of his class at Harvey Mudd, but he chose a graduate school where he could thrive, and it led to an NSF postdoc and he’s just finishing that now.
I don’t mind talking with students who are having serious family issues about losing both of my parents to terminal illnesses and telling them it’s okay to let academic work suffer. Because as human beings, they aren’t defined by their academic work.
I don’t mind telling students with emotional issues that it’s OK to see a counselor, because I’ve seen a counselor.
So with a struggling student, showing my weakness is extending and sharing grace. I am validating their worthiness in our shared struggles. They don’t have to perform well to earn my favor.
And... sometimes, showing weakness enables us to RECEIVE grace from our students. One of the nicest things a student ever said to me came when my father was dying of cancer, and I was flying back and forth to Texas multiple times to tend to his care. There was a point in the semester when my class had had more lectures from other people than from me, and it was surely disruptive for them to see a different professor every day. So I confessed to my class that I had two roles---as a son and as a teacher---and I felt I was doing neither of those roles well. One of my students said to me, so gently: “Should I be terminally ill later in life, I would want my son to act as you have.”
Ah, grace! From my student, who reminded me: I didn’t need to be so hard on myself. I didn’t need to perform well to earn his favor.
So this is the Lesson of GRACE: Your accomplishments are NOT what make you a worthy human being. You learn this lesson by receiving GRACE: good things you didn't earn or deserve, but you're getting them anyway.
And this is my HOPE: that you could receive and give GRACE.
We are so trained by our accomplishment-driven culture to believe that our deeds are what make us worthy of honor or respect. To fight this, you have to surround yourself with grace-givers, people who are good at it.
All the best teachers in my life have been grace-givers. Think of that teacher whom you knew was busy, but still made you feel like you were the most important person in the world. Think of those people whom you can be authentic with---those who, even if they know all the rotten things about you, would love you anyway.
The ones around whom you feel you have no shame.
Sure, good instructional techniques are necessary for good teaching. But they are not sufficient. They are NOT the foundation. Grace-filled relationships with your students are the foundation for good teaching, because it gives you freedom to explore, freedom to fail. Freedom to let students take control of their own learning, freedom to affirm the struggling student by your own weakness. Grace amplifies the teacher-student relationship to one of greater trust in which a student can thrive.
“To teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced.” ---Parker Palmer
That community and space that Parker Palmer talks about does not form without grace.
I’d like to think that I’m a good teacher because I communicate well and I choose the best examples, and that when my former students think of my teaching, they think of these things. But that is accomplishment-driven thinking isn’t it? Instead what students remember most often are those moments of grace.
Last year, at Harvey Mudd graduation event, a math major Simeon was invited to give a speech to parents about his college experience. I'd like to close my talk by sharing part of it, with his permission:
“The one class that best embodies the essence of Harvey Mudd College was a class called Real Analysis. In Real Analysis I learned to question the very definition of real numbers and everything I knew about mathematics. What do you mean I have to prove how to add two real numbers? Proof by common sense and elementary education were strictly prohibited. Real Analysis was perhaps the hardest class I’ve taken, and my first experience of struggling in math. I wasn’t getting the concepts as quickly as some of my peers, and I couldn’t help feeling incompetent in math, a subject I had always felt confident in... the “gateway” to mathematics never felt so narrow and without space for an incompetent student like me... Fortunately, there’s more to the story. During that semester I was doing a book study with Professor Su outside of class, and I was uncomfortable. Sitting before me was a super smart incredible professor, and I felt really unworthy to be hanging out with him because I wasn’t doing so well in his class, and I thought I might disappoint him once he got to know me personally. But at our last meeting, we were talking and he said, 'I want students to understand that professors don’t value students based on their academic performance'... to hear from my own professor, whom I really love and admire, at a time when I felt ashamed of my intelligence and thus unworthy of his friendship, that I wasn’t just a student in a seat, not just a letter grade or a number on my transcript, but a valuable person who he wants to know on a personal level, was perhaps the most incredible moment of my college career. And that’s the kind of place that Harvey Mudd was.”
Yes, Simeon, you get it! You understand the transformative power of grace! My hope for all of us is that we would understand grace in all its forms and how it can transform our teaching.
And not only will grace inspire our students, it will inspire us. Just like my students, the moments I remember best from my own teaching are the grace-filled moments I have shared with my students and colleagues and former teachers, many of whom are here today. I want to thank them, because I didn’t deserve those blessed moments. But they gave them to me anyway.
“We know truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.” --- Blaise Pascal