Why Is Giving Grace So Important for Teachers?
My old dentist, Tommy Jones, was also my baseball coach. He had a locked shed at the baseball field where he kept paint buckets full of extra baseballs for batting practice and fielding grounders. After getting my teeth cleaned in January of my eighth-grade year, I asked him if I could borrow a bucket of balls to take some extra batting practice. Coach Jones didn't hesitate. He gave me the keys, told me to lock up when I finished, and said to bring the keys back to his office after that. He trusted me completely, and that was a mistake.
I was thirteen years old, full of spunk and anger and stupidity. People couldn't tell me to do anything. Coaches, parents, and teachers tagged me as a "problem" kid. Everyone was waiting for me to screw up, and I didn't disappoint.
Instead of taking batting practice - which I'd never planned to do in the first place - I gathered my friends Brandon and Wayne to play home run derby on the softball field. We took one bucket of balls from Coach Jones's shed and played for the next couple of hours. It was a 250-foot park, so we hit a lot of home runs, but being the lazy teenagers we were, we gave a half-ass effort to retrieve them. When we gathered the remaining balls, there was an obvious lack, but instead of spending more time trying to find the baseballs we lost, we tucked the bucket back into the shed, among the other ten or so buckets, and hoped Coach Jones wouldn't notice.
Time went by, nothing happened, so we figured we were ok. Baseball began in the spring as usual, and I was eager to make the varsity team. Before the first practice, Coach Jones told everyone to sit along the fence in front of the home dugout. This was nothing unusual; he always started practice with a "talk." This time he began with, "I want to tell you guys a story."
"A few months ago, a guy came to me and asked for some extra balls for batting practice. Great guy. I like him, but when I went back in the shed, there were lots of balls missing out of the bucket he borrowed. Turns out someone had seen him playing home run derby on the softball field, so I went over there and found 10 or 15 balls that he had just left. And this, guys, is a story about doing the little things right. All he had to do was just spend a little extra time finding the balls he lost. But he didn't, and he lost a lot of my trust."
I felt small, very small. I was waiting for him to say my name: "Brent, why don't you tell us all why you did that?" Here I was, an eighth grader trying to make a varsity team, and the coach singles me out. I braced myself for the blow. But it never came. He moved on to something else, and in the four years I played for him (I didn't make the team that year), we never spoke about it again. Instead, I focused on winning back his trust, which I did over time. What he taught me that day was a lesson about grace. He could've crushed me in front of all my peers. He had every right to do it, but he knew that offering grace was a much better option. This became a pivotal moment in my life, and I'll never forget it.
Offering grace can be hard. Colleagues will think you're a softy or that you're more interested in your students liking you than you are in teaching them a lesson. But in my experience, receiving grace opens people up for some of the greatest lessons in their lives. Grace builds rapport between you and your students. It doesn't build a wall. What's more is grace offers an opportunity for self-reflection. After Coach Jones let me off the hook in front of my peers, I actually thought about what he said. At 13, I didn't listen to anyone else, but I realized Coach Jones was actually interested in me improving as a human being. He wasn't like my English teacher who just kicked me out of class when I misbehaved, and though I deserved it, I never learned anything from it. Being embarrassed in front of my peers made me angry, and it reinforced the narrative I was telling myself: "You're a bad kid, the class clown, etc." It didn't affect the way I behaved. Coach Jones's decision made me want to be a better person.
And when you extend grace, it is extended back to you. On those days you're sick or tired or depressed or whatever, students will give back what has been freely given. We all have those days, and it's so much better when our students can empathize, offer us a little grace, and let us be off our game.
Coach Jones didn't punish me, he offered me an opportunity, a get-out-of-jail-free card. And fortunately, I cashed it in.