It Starts With Grace…

  • Neither judgment nor grace requires knowing the full story. Empathy does.
  • Focus on an empathetic lens, but know that empathy requires taking action.
  • Empathy involves accountability; it involves expectations, but it also involves support, growth, reflection, and requires a relationship.

Before you start reading this looking for answers to problems or solutions to struggles, let me be very honest with you. This post is more about me seeking clarity than providing it. This post is being written so that I can try to make sense of some of my recent thoughts. So feel free to push back, polish my position, and let me know where you fall in all of this once you’re done reading. Let me set the stage.

For my day job, I get the opportunity to serve as a college professor working with future educational leaders.

My students are working towards advanced degrees with hopes of one day leading schools and systems. This week, for one of my classes, I invited a guest speaker to share. Sari McKeown is an amazing district and school leader from New York.

As she was sharing with my students, she blew me away with her transparency and vulnerability. In front of a class full of future leaders, she spoke about her family, her upbringing, her struggles, and her weaknesses. She formed true relationships with each of my twenty-five students in less than an hour because of her genuine humility, which opened the class up for amazing conversations.

And if I am completely honest, I have been obsessed with some of what she shared for 48 hours now. As she shared stories from her past, Sari emphasized the need to show empathy for others, to assume the good and doubt the bad, and to create genuine relationships with no strings attached. This is all so good and so spot on, but it has led me to the following thoughts. The thoughts that I am hoping you can refine.If you want others to grow, you must be willing to grow as well. Empathy involves accountability; it involves expectations, but it also involves support, growth, reflection, and requires a relationship.CLICK TO TWEET

For the last eight months in education, we have been asking for grace.

We have been presented with moving targets, daily disruptions to our patterns, coupled with high expectations. At the same time, others have provided judgment. They have ranted and raved and offered complaints without presenting solutions.

But, what if grace and judgment are really two ends of the same spectrum? What if both do harm and stunt our ability to grow?

You see, judgment is often a result of incomplete facts. When a teacher struggles to adapt to new technology, some may offer a judgment that she simply doesn’t care. When a student fails to turn on his camera during a virtual lesson, a judgment may be that he is defiant or dismissive. When a child fails to turn in an assignment on time, we may provide a judgment that she doesn’t care or isn’t organized.

When grace enters the equation, we also do not need to know the facts. We simply offer a free pass, forgiveness, and then attempt to move on.

Grace may feel better to the recipient, but I wonder if it is just as detrimental as judgment?

You see, when we provide grace, we are also giving ourselves a free pass from learning the whole story. When we offer grace, we don’t have to dig deep and learn what is really happening. A relationship is not required for grace, nor is it required when we judge.

Growth comes from empathy. Empathy means we seek to understand. Empathy means we put ourselves into the shoes of the other person. Empathy requires us to explore our intent, to examine our purpose, and forces us to focus more on growth than compliance.

As a father of four kids, a former teacher, former building administrator, and district administrator, I can count hundreds of times where I judged others, but I can also count hundreds of times where my own arrogance allowed me to simply pass out grace because it was easier for me. Grace can lead to a God complex where I walk around determining who is worthy.

Think about it like this.

Imagine you are a classroom teacher and you had an assignment due last night. This afternoon you realize two students failed to turn it in on time. This evening, however, you hear from both students. The first student simply sends you a message that says, “Here is my assignment.” The second student, however, sends you a message explaining that his dog died the day before, that his grandmother is in the hospital, and his WiFi was down all night.

As the teacher, offering grace would involve allowing both students to turn in their work late. Similarly, offering a judgment could mean you look at student one and assume he is lazy, unorganized, and has no manners. You give the second student a free pass but not the first student.

If you focus on an empathetic lens, you don’t stop there. Empathy requires taking action.

It requires you to not only assume the good and doubt the bad, but it also requires you to learn the story to offer support. Is it possible that the first student just struggled with organization? Sure, but do you know that? Do you know his full story and do you know how to help?

If you are a building leader, this same mindset could benefit you. Do you know why that teacher missed the staff meeting? Do you know why that teacher is reluctant to adopt a new curricular resource? Do you know why that parent yelled at you? Do you know why???? 

So here is my big takeaway.

Neither judgment nor grace requires knowing the full story. Empathy does. If you must decide between the two, always choose grace over judgment, but don’t stop there. Only use grace until you are able to learn more.

Remember, though, you are not just learning about someone else. You also must learn about yourself. You must be willing to examine if your expectations are arbitrary and subjective. If you want others to grow, you must be willing to grow as well. Empathy involves accountability; it involves expectations, but it also involves support, growth, reflection, and requires a relationship.

As you go about your day today, think about the decisions you make falling somewhere along the spectrum. On one side is judgment. On the other side is grace. Somewhere in the middle is empathy. Where do you fall?

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