Lessons in Teaching from My Mother’s Brain Tumor: Grace

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Mom on her birthday in high school.

Tomorrow is my mother’s birthday. Tonight I had the small-town pizzeria treat we have often shared on her birthday, but with her college roommate, not her. Mom died May 22 at age 70 of a Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive brain tumor diagnosed in June.

Back at school this fall, I sometimes ponder how I survived last year at all. I had just quit my last school after 13 years, having been hired in my home school district, when we found Mom was sick. A whirlwind summer of neurosurgery and radiation left me scattered, and I went into a new school with new colleagues and new preps, and with only two weeks sick leave and no right to Family Medical Leave. I was my mom’s primary caretaker, though blessed with siblings and a host of family friends to help.

I’ve pondered a few lessons for this blog, but tonight’s is this: Grace. Simple grace. Sometimes it was giving myself grace, and not taking the extra minutes to fix the formatting on the worksheet, allowing some formative check-ins be small group discussions rather than exit cards, saving me grading time.  Grace. I can’t be all I want to be at all times. Mother. Daughter. Wife. Friend. Teacher. Me. Give myself grace.

Some of the grace came from administration, especially in May. Do I need to take my study hall time and grade papers? Go ahead. Need a tucked away office to buckle down during prep? Take mine. You just got a phone call you need to attend to? We’ll have someone in your room in two minutes. I hadn’t built a relationship with these people as I was new and just surviving, but they extended grace.

Most of the grace, however, came from students. It came in extreme moments when they heard my cell phone ring: silence fell quickly because any call was meaningful. Once, returning a computer cart during passing time, a student overtook me, my ringing phone in hand, saying she knew it was important. Grace came in small moments, too, when I would get caught in a theme of a poem (try teaching “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” the week you research hospice) or stumble in my words, my mind numb. Most of the time, grace was extended in patience when AP prompts did not come back immediately, or tests took a bit longer to grade. Grace. My students gave me grace.

I say this now as the school year starts and thoughts bounce in my head. At a department meeting two weeks ago, we talked over late policies. Our school is moving to not giving zeroes for late work, and not allowing grades to be impacted by work behaviour. Many teachers disagree, reasonably, even lovingly. Teaching responsibility has been a key element of our craft.

But I think grace. Believe in second chances. Allow kids to get out of holes. This doesn’t mean I won’t hold students accountable. I will spend some time tomorrow calling each and every sophomore’s family of those who did not read the last assignment in a timely matter. But I will have an alternative assignment ready… grace.

There is research to back that up– so many of the great grading gurus expound new approaches to scoring work, and an interesting article in the Atlantic this month argues why boys need grace so much more.

But the main reason I know grace is right is my students tell me so. Last week, students were given a prompt choice for their first story to tell about a favorite teacher. Many told of teachers who were engaging or who gave candy, but a clear theme was grace. Teachers who loved kids after they caught them cheating. Teachers who extended second chances. Teachers who asked why instead of assuming laziness. Teachers who made sure a kid understood the material, not simply shrugging when work wasn’t done.

My mom believed in responsibility, and so do I. But grace is a bridge, a parachute, a ladder. It gets us from crisis to success, it tempers the terrors, it digs us out of holes. I have oft needed grace, and so I extend grace.