Teaching Tips: Grace and Identity

Bethany Bowen-Wefuan shares today’s teaching tip. Want to see her other pieces for the blog, including posts on praying for students and thankfulness around graduate exam time? Click here

For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. John 1:16

As an undergraduate, I found it very difficult to contribute to class discussions—sometimes I was too shy to speak up, other times I simply couldn’t think of anything to say. The struggle persisted into graduate school, where I pushed myself to participate, but was still frustrated and disappointed in my performance. I suspected that my professors were too. Some days, I felt like I was wearing a sign on my forehead: “The-Girl-Who-Should-Speak-Up-More. A lot more.”

I think that many of our students have the same suspicions about us that I had about my professors: they think that when we look at them, the only thing we see is their performance—that their identity inside our classroom is their performance. How can we, as instructors and recipients of Jesus Christ’s grace, meet our students’ insecurities, and even their short-comings, with grace? I’d like to suggest three specific ways:

  • The Teacher’s Identity. Most of us can recall professors from our years as students who believed that their class should be as important to us as it was to them. Their sense of success and significance was tied to our interest in their course. Perhaps we’ve had the same feelings about the classes we teach. When we find our identity in Christ, and not in our teaching, the pressure is off for our students to affirm us. We can recognize and accept that our students have many responsibilities, concerns, and obligations that take precedence over our class.
  • The Student’s Identity. Jesus’s grace is seen in the unmerited identity He gives to His people: “I have called you friends” (John 15:15). In contrast, I’ve noticed how easy it is to use language that equates my students’ identity with their performance: “He is the ideal student”, “She was a B student”, “He was a slacker”, etc. Without a doubt, there are times to speak plainly about our students’ performance, but their performance should not define them in our thinking or speech.
  • Independent Kindness. While our grading and feedback must be fair and honest, the kindness and respect we show our students should be completely independent of their performance. If we take our cues from Christ, who welcomed all, our gracious treatment of our weakest, least-committed students will be as robust as that of our strongest students.

Against the backdrop of letter grades, GPAs, tests, and homework, may grace shine through us to the glory of God.

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Bethany Bowen-Wefuan

Bethany Bowen-Wefuan is a PhD student in German Studies at the Carolina-Duke German Studies Program. In addition to studying 19th century German literature and teaching, she spends most of her time with friends, family, and her sweet husband Dieter.

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