We couldn’t have said it any better.

You might have already heard Professor Francis Su’s lecture “The Lesson of Grace in Teaching” as it bounced across social networks last weekend. Su is Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College and was recently awarded the Haimo Award for his work as a mathematics educator. All Haimo award winners are invited to lecture regarding their own pedagogical discoveries to their peers, and Su chose to speak the on role of grace in higher education.

Again, we really couldn’t have said it any better.

COFFEEYou can find the the whole transcript and audio for the half-hour lecture on a special blog Su set up. The lecture runs the gambit, from the personal story of a professor extending Su grace in the midst of family tragedy to the full-circle honor he received from a student publicly acknowledging the grace Su had once showed him. In between, Su outlines a theology of teaching rooted in grace, where he encourages professors to meet exhausted students in their 8am classes (by providing the occasional doughnut), academic struggles (by meeting with every failing student in person) and their personal tragedies (“I don’t mind telling students to see a counselor, because I’ve seen a counselor!”). The whole lecture is so humble and yet so pastoral, you’d think it came from Grace In Practice: Teacher’s Edition.

I’ll reproduce the best bits below (a challenge, because the whole lecture is so darn good!), but for anyone who will ever be teacher or a student, this well worth the listen:

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.”

tumblr_m7aoxjsR4d1rvgrpio1_250I 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!


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.

Yup.  We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.