The Lesson of Grace in Teaching



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:

“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.

Continue reading this inspirational article at:


Author: mathtuition88

Math and Education Blog

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