The Lesson of Grace in Teaching

Nice post by Professor Francis Su:

http://mathyawp.blogspot.sg/2013/01/the-lesson-of-grace-in-teaching.html

Excerpt:

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.

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.
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