Do you find yourself walking that fine line between fostering responsible students and contributing to their future need for therapy? As teachers, we need to create a structured environment where students have rules and deadlines to follow, but we also need to have systems in place for how they can redeem themselves when mistakes are made. We are trying to prepare them for future educational environments and workplaces where responsibility will be required, but we also are preparing them for a life surrounded by humans where mistakes happen. In this post, I’m going to make a case that we can do both. I’d like to share some cases where I was extended grace and then propose some strategies for how you can encourage graceful responsibility in your classroom.
A Case For Grace
I’m going to share two cases where I was extended grace in my educational and professional life. If you don’t need convincing that grace is necessary, feel free to scroll down to the Graceful Strategies section.
What is grace? In my faith grace is thought of as undeserved generosity. It is something we are truly thankful for because we did not earn it. When it is extended to us, we are truly appreciative.
I was extended grace during my freshman year at NC State University. NCSU ran an unusual schedule during exam week. Classes did not meet at their regular times. I was a decent student – not perfect, but decent. I attended class regularly, worked hard, and tried to get the best grades I could.
I was leaving a study session with some friends where we had been focused on a particularly hard engineering exam when I realized that I had just missed my lab exam for Chemistry.
The lab exam was one that I was not as worried about. You couldn’t really study for it. All I had to do was show up and get it done…and I screwed up the showing up part.
I ran to the lab almost in tears and explained to the instructor my honest mistake. He smiled and told me the time when the next section would be taking the exam. He extended me grace for an honest mistake; Grace that I didn’t deserve but was truly appreciative of.
Fast forward a few years to my first job as a chemical engineer in the paper industry. My boss, who was amazing, was a little leery of me to begin with. The company had just done some restructuring and taken away from him a seasoned engineer and given him me – a shiny, new, fresh out of college, winging it engineer.
We were planning a chemical trial and I was responsible for unloading the chemicals. I screwed up and some of the chemicals were wasted. I could have hidden it. The wasted chemicals were disposed of properly and I could have moved on with my day, but I knew it was going to mess up our numbers at the end of the trial.
I went to my boss and was totally honest about what had happened, just knowing that he was going to be mad. He smiled, thanked me for being honest, and helped me develop a plan for how to account for the change in the trial.
The ironic thing is that this was the day he stopped being leery of me. The day I screwed up is the day he started trusting me. I felt a change in our relationship that day. He extended undeserved grace to me, making me more trustful of him. He also relaxed some knowing that I was going to try my best and be honest when mistakes happened.
Grace in the classroom is necessary. I’d like to propose some strategies for how we can extend grace to our students, while still fostering the responsible habits that they will need in the future.
Are you busy? I’m busy. I’m doing the mom thing, the teacher thing, the wife thing, the church thing, the really inconsistent blogging thing….
Your students are busy too. Chances are they are trying to juggle family responsibilities, school, athletics, band, chorus, church, a part time job, and a fledgling relationship. And they’re new at all of this.
Graceful planning is necessary. We need to teach students how to plan ahead and manage their time. Here are some strategies for how you can help your students.
- Publish due dates in a consistent way. I use a Google calendar that I share with my students. They can add it to their phone and set up notifications for assignments. Here is how I use a Google Calendar with my classroom (Best Practices for Using Google Calendar in Your Classroom). It has been a bit of a lifeline for both me and my students.
- Allow ample time for assignments to be completed outside of class. Teaching a lesson one day and expecting a large homework assignment about that lesson to be due the next day is setting students up to fail. They need time to plan that homework into their busy schedules. It doesn’t make sense to lecture them about time management when time is not provided.
- Plan your lessons around allowing students at least a couple of days to complete their homework assignments.
- I teach a lot of adult learners in an online class. I make sure to have every assignment open for at least a week, AND over a weekend so that they can manage their time.
Have you ever had a lesson tank? I know I have. Maybe it went great in one period and was a total miss in the next period. It happens.
While it is tempting to just forge ahead after a botched lesson, I don’t recommend it. The idea that students will figure it out on their own just doesn’t align with what I’ve observed in the classroom.
- Allow yourself some grace. I will even admit to students when I think something didn’t go well. It builds trust. Take a mulligan. Reteach the botched portion of the material. You’ll be glad you did and your students will learn to trust you more.
- Provide outside resources. You are only one person, and you probably lean toward one teaching style. Chances are it does not resonate with every person in the class.
- Tell students when there is another way of doing something. Electron configuration is a great example. The little diagram with the arrows blows my mind. I remember it blowing my mind in high school and I distinctly remember the day someone showed me the other method and everything suddenly made sense. I teach electron configuration using the periodic table. But I tell students that the diagram is out there. They are welcome to go seek out that method if my method did not work for them.
- Do you have a class website or Moodle page? For each topic, post videos or websites where the material is being described. I call this section “Optional Resources.” I post Khan Academy videos, ScienceGeek links, and links to articles that would build interest about the material. It is a place where students can go for extra help. Leaving them to their own devices is going to lead to them learning chemistry on Chegg or through a Google Image Search.
- Create a place where you students can chat with each other. You’ll want to monitor the conversation. I use a Google Hangout (which I think is now called a Room). I tell students upfront that I monitor the chat, but I try not to answer their questions there. I want them to answer each other. If I see misinformation starting to spread, I may make a comment, but for the most part I leave it to them to help each other and share resources. I usually offer a small carrot for participating in the chat.
Let’s be honest. This is a topic that can get heated in faculty meetings. Should we allow students to turn assignments in late? Should we allow them to do test retakes? After all, we want them to learn responsibility, but we also want to be assessing what they know rather than their behavior.
It is a fine line to walk. Here are some suggestions for how you can do both:
- Allow your final exam to replace their lowest test grade. This gives them a chance to make up for one bombed exam. It gives them some hope and a reason to keep pushing forward when they bomb a test. My course builds on itself throughout the semester, so there is a good chance that they will have a better understanding of the material from the beginning of the semester at the end of the semester.
- Particularly if you have a lot of grades, consider dropping the lowest grade in certain categories. I do this for labs, which are often tricky to make up.
- Develop a graceful late work policy. I recommend one that requires effort on the part of the student and can only be used a limited number of times. For example, create a Google form where a student has to request to turn an assignment in late. This allows you to monitor how many late assignments are being turned in by each student and enforce whatever policy you develop. It is letting students know that you realize that accidents happen, but you expect them to be mindful of your well published due dates.
- Try review tests. This worked very well with my high school chemistry courses. After test 2, students could elect to take a “review test” about test 1. It was a 10 question test that covered the material, meaning each question was pretty high stakes. If the grade on the review test was higher, I would replace the test 1 grade. This helped students maintain hope and kept them going back to review older material throughout the semester.
Do Unto Others…
We have all had undeserved generosity bestowed on us in some way. Consider the effect that graceful teaching can have on your classroom. You can still teach responsibility and time management in a way that allows for occasional mistakes.
“And of his fulness have all we received, and grace for grace.”