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Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Feb 14, 2021

When no one’s showing YOU grace … make space instead

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

When no one’s showing YOU grace … make space instead

By Angela Watson

The inspiration for this podcast came from the very popular phrase of “giving people grace” during this pandemic.

It’s a term that really seems to come into popularity in spring 2020 when we were first doing emergency remote teaching.

The motto for many schools became: Give students grace: don’t hold them to unrealistic or harsh standards for turning in work, make deadlines more aspirational than hard and fast. Give parents grace and understand how stressful this is on them suddenly having their kids learning from home.

At the beginning of the pandemic, teachers were hailed as heroes. They had changed their entire model of teaching on a dime, literally overnight in some cases, and were going the extra mile to let their students know they were cared for and loved.

Well, the “teachers are heroes” narrative” lasted about a month, from what I observed.

Once it became clear that most schools were not going to be reopened last school year, I think a lot of folks started panicking that the kids were going to “fall behind” and lose an entire quarter of the school year, and therefore we could not give grace to teachers. They were once again responsible for doing the impossible, and working miracles for students in even more challenging conditions than before the pandemic.

Fast forward to this school year, in which many districts have attempted to just get back to normal and act like nothing is going on.

I will repeat in this episode as I have been nearly every other one just to validate the folks who feel like they’re losing their minds: nothing about this is normal.

Holding teachers, students, school leaders, or anyone else in the education system to our previous expectations for productivity and student learning right now is unreasonable. I’m acknowledging that it’s happening and trying to help you find ways to deal with that and improve the situation, but I am in no way condoning it.

A teacher named Kerry recently expressed her concerns about this in a comment on my Facebook page, about what she calls “the empty refrain of ‘giving grace.” She wrote,

“It feels tone-deaf to hear ‘give grace’ when coming from people who are demanding more than ever. I can give my students grace; I do it daily. But the same person who’s observing me, telling me to administer benchmarks, questioning my students’ readiness for state testing, directing me to check in with students and act as their counselor, and having me track down and combat truancy, is doing this all while reminding me to give myself grace and take time for self-care as well.”

Kerry is right. And all of this has led to is a bunch of very frustrated and overwhelmed teachers who are tired of extending grace to everyone else while they’re being observed and evaluated and preparing their students for standardized testing as if it’s a perfectly normal year.

I’m going to share a different way to think about this, and then I’m going to talk about some ways that you can make it more likely that other people will give you grace.

By grace, I mean having other people respect the fact that you also are living through a pandemic; you also have had to change a lot about your lifestyle and pretty much everything about how you teach, and you also are stressed, traumatized, and exhausted. You also cannot be held to unreasonable standards or normal levels of productivity.

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Solution #1: Instead of giving grace, think of giving people space to be themselves

The first thing we want to address is defusing some of the resentment about how you’re supposed to give others grace. If you can change, think about the way that you give grace to other people that might make things a little bit easier on you. I’m going to propose that instead of giving people grace, that you give them space instead.

Think of it as giving people space to be themselves: space to have up days and down days, low moods and high moods. Give people space to be inconsistent in how they think, feel, and behave.

Giving someone space to be themselves means that you are not boxing them in, restricting them in unnecessary ways, making them conform to what you want them to conform. There’s just a little bit of space within the expectations — some room for the person to move and grow and be the way they need to be, to have bad days, to be unmotivated sometimes. Instead of closing in on them more tightly when that happens, expand the space you give them to be themselves and to cope in the way that they need to. 

Giving people space to be themselves is the exact opposite of trying to control and micromanage people. When you give students and their families space, you allow them to be super responsive sometimes and then not responsive at all.

You give them space to participate a lot at times and to have participation dwindle at times. You give them space to experience a full range of human emotions, to be sad and unproductive for a few days, and then back on the ball for a few days, and then in need of a lot of follow-ups and reminders again for a few days after that.

And you can respond to all of these variations with radical acceptance — that’s Episode 176 if you want to learn more. With radical acceptance, the situation may not be okay or right or good, but it IS what’s happening, and you choose your response with that reality in mind.

You can choose to respond to students’ lack of engagement, late work, and so on with non-judgment. Certainly, you can follow up to understand what’s happening; certainly, there needs to be logical consequences in some situations. But this is about how you think about the situation and how you treat people — what your attitude, tone, and word choice are like when you’re addressing problems.

Choosing non-judgment is part of giving students space to be themselves. The idea is that you’re not making students feel bad that they have less productive days. You’re not doing things that make them feel as if you are looking down at them or are impatient with them when they’re not functioning at 100% of giving their best. You’re not reminding them of how they did such a great job yesterday, so what’s wrong with them today?

Instead, you’re accepting that like all of us, students do not function at consistently productive levels. All of us have certain days we’re sharper and more energetic than others. We also have times of the day where we’re more focused. We may also have times of the week, times of the month, or times of the year when we can get more things done. There’s a ton of variables that go into that: it varies by the person in the household and by culture and what else is happening in the world and in the person’s life.

So allowing for these ups and downs and ebbs and flows without attaching a judgment about it being a “good day/mood” or “bad day/mood” is what we call in my household “giving people space to be themselves.”

This is not just giving people space, which implies that you’re pulling away from them or withdrawing. It’s giving people space to be themselves — their full selves, allowing them to experience whatever it is they are going through without them needing to change it to please you.

So if you’ve been frustrated with trying to give other people grace when no one is showing grace to you, try this. Try not thinking about the expectation to extend grace and instead think about giving them space to be themselves.

You are not doing them a favor or letting them off the hook or permitting bad behavior or being lax in your standards. You are giving people space to experience life in their own way, on their own terms without comparing them to some standardized ideal of how children should behave or how they should act or what they should know.

You’re allowing parents to be exactly who they are, having phases in their lives when they’re probably doing too much for their kids and phases when they’re probably not doing enough.

Resist the urge to put anyone (your students, their families, your principal, or your colleagues) into a box, to flatten them into a caricature of themselves, and you expect them to always act consistently. Your “good kids” are not going to be good every moment of every day, and your “bad kids” are going to have some pretty awesome moments on a regular basis too, if you’re attuned to those moments.

If you want to enjoy your life, it’s important to practice this — to practice not holding people to your preconceived notions of who you believe them to be, or even who they are most of the time. Most of the time, a student might be serious, but that doesn’t mean that if they’re cracking inappropriate jokes in class that there’s something wrong and you should be shocked at their behavior. Most of the time, they might be on task, but that doesn’t mean when they don’t turn in an assignment that it has to be a huge deal, complete with a lecture like, “What happening? You’re always so responsible. Why didn’t you turn in your homework?”

Give them a chance to have an off day or an off mood. This is giving people space to be themselves.

I’ve found this to be a super helpful strategy for getting along with people in general. It’s something that I learned through my marriage because giving people space to be themselves is a phrase that my husband uses a lot. It’s something that he really excels at. He never puts me in a box or tries to make me be the same person that I was 10 years ago, or 5 years ago, or even yesterday.

Every day is a completely fresh start with him, and however I am feeling and whatever I’m thinking and wanting to do that day, it’s pretty much OK with him. He never acts shocked if he wakes up and finds me cleaning the house, nor if he finds that the house is a mess and I’m just laying around. Either of those choices is fine. If I were to be obsessively cleaning or never getting off the couch, I assume he would eventually have a conversation with me about that. But I never feel any kind of pressure to be a certain version of myself with him. He doesn’t remind me of contradictions or stuff in the past, he lets me be the way I am.

And that is a powerful freedom to have with any kind of relationship, to know that you are accepted and you don’t have to perform to any kind of standard in order for the other person to be happy around you.

My friendships operate the same way: You don’t sense that if you aren’t behaving a certain way or getting a certain amount of things done that the other person will suddenly disapprove of you, or throw it back in your face later. Giving people space to be themselves is a very satisfying way to interact because you learn that you are not responsible for other people’s choices and you don’t have to push them toward the choice you think they should take when you are not attached to that specific path for them.

In other words, if you have a student who is constantly late to class, giving them space to be themselves means you don’t make a big joke of it when they are on time and tease them, like wow you’re finally here. Or even comment on it like thanks for being on time. It’s a fresh day and a fresh start. We just welcome them in, “Hey there John, great to see you.” Of course, there may be things that you’re doing behind the scenes to ensure that there are no bigger reasons for the constant tardiness, but in the way you treat the student, you’re not constantly reminding them or nagging them or making them feel like they disappoint you.

Part of giving people space to be themselves is allowing them to make their own choices, and that’s a really hard thing for teachers, particularly since we are held responsible for the outcomes even though we don’t have control over all the variables.

I think this school year, in particular, we’re having to learn that when kids are at home and not in our classrooms, we have even less control over their choices, we have to respect their autonomy and give them agency, and give them space to be themselves. There is no other choice — at least no other choice that won’t leave you feeling extremely frustrated. So rather than constantly thinking about how this kid is always late and it drives you crazy and why doesn’t he care about his education and why don’t his parents do anything about it, just give him space to be himself.

So when you’re feeling frustrated that you have to give grace to everyone else and no one‘s giving grace to you, try flipping it to thinking about people giving people space, not grace — give them space to be themselves.

Solution #2: Stop making your work look effortless, and invite folks into the process

There are also some things that you can do to set a norm where other people are extending grace to you.

Some people will do this automatically — they will understand that you have a tough job and it’s especially tough right now, and they will go out of their way to show appreciation and be patient with you. And I think there are some folks who will never ever give you a break.

Some people just have that personality, and some people are under a tremendous amount of stress particularly right now with COVID. Some people just don’t have the emotional bandwidth to be as attuned to your feelings as they should be. So if you’re expecting everyone to be super nice (even if you’re super nice to them) that’s probably not realistic.

But I can give you some tips to help with that middle group. There are some that will naturally give you grace and some folks will never give you grace, but many others can be trained in how to do that. We teach people how to treat us, and you can do that in some subtle ways by setting a tone in your interactions with students and parents, and colleagues that giving people space to be themselves is normal and expected.

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I think it’s very important to show your humanity to parents and students for a lot of reasons, but for the purposes of this episode, it really does go a long way toward receiving grace from them. It can be very tempting to try to present yourself as a person who has everything together, but especially in a pandemic, it’s important for families to understand that you are doing something that’s never been done before, and a lot of things you’re having to figure out as you go, just like everyone during a pandemic.

So the goal is to be perceived as knowledgeable but not all knowing; competent but not infallible. You do not have to know everything and do everything perfectly, and in fact, I think when you set up this expectation that you’re on top of everything, it’s even more jarring for others when things don’t go well.

Look for small things you can do to help families see you as a fellow human who is doing your best to make it through a pandemic. Instead of saying, “Here’s the activity” and magically produce a robust, complex resource that just appears in front of students, you could say, “I spent several hours putting these materials together this weekend. I thought it might be good to include ___ to help you with ___, so I added that — let me know if it’s helpful. And I wasn’t sure if you would need ___. I left it out, what do you think?”

This kind of conversation is not supposed to be a pity party where you guilt trip students into feeling bad you spent so much time on the assignment. You’re just matter-of-factly revealing some of the work that goes into what you’re showing them. It’s much harder for students or families to criticize things when the careful work and consideration you put into the assignment is evident to them.

Bring them into the process: get their input along the way so they can see that it takes planning to pull this stuff off. Talking about how you made decisions about their learning also heads off unnecessary criticism: if you’re about to do something that students or parents don’t like, explain your reasoning. “I know some folks really don’t like group projects — I want you to know I weighed a couple of different options here. Here’s what I considered, and here’s why I think this is the best approach.”

Can you see how this is a humanizing way to present assignments? This process shows flexibility and reflection. It shows that you don’t view yourself as all-knowing or perfect, which means that they shouldn’t expect that of you either. Look for ways to show parents how you are learning and refining things based on what works well for them and what doesn’t.

I want to highlight one reason that this can be tricky: teachers in general, and women especially, are conditioned to make everything we do look effortless. There’s this expectation that good teachers are superheroes: they can do it all without breaking a sweat.

But trying to make everything look effortless often backfires because it makes people expect even more of us. Since everything we were already doing was just so easy and no big deal, then asking them to make this one little accommodation or change this one assignment or do this other thing shouldn’t be a problem right? The teacher handled everything else with no problem, why not this thing, too?

Don’t allow folks to think that something you did was “no big deal” when it was actually a fair amount of work and took quite a bit of time. That’s not being professional, that’s presenting a professional veneer, and borders on disingenuous.

Tell families, “I’m devoting about 90 minutes a day to email, and that’s the most that I can allot while also still planning and grading. So while I will try to get back to you within 24 hours, if it takes longer, please know it’s because…”

If kids are asking why you haven’t graded an assignment yet, tell them, “it takes approximately five minutes to grade each project, and I have 150 projects to grade.” Ask them to do the math on how long that takes. When they figure it out, say, “That’s right, it’s a lot of time and I’m spending most of my time during the day teaching and responding to messages. So I really appreciate your patience, I want to get this stuff back to you as fast as I can and I wish I had a whole extra day every week just to grade.

Again you’re not doing this in any kind of sarcastic or complaining tone. The goal is to let them see the person behind the teacher. The things they are wanting from you take time and energy which are limited resources each day. Do not be a superhero who puts on the appearance of tackling every task effortlessly and then complains and collapses behind the scenes.

Solution #3: Say “thank you” instead of apologizing

A final thing you can do to increase the likelihood of people giving you grace or space to be yourself is to practice saying thank you instead of apologizing. This advice has come from a number of books and social media posts primarily targeted at women, but it’s useful advice for anyone, particularly people who have been socialized to believe that they should apologize for things that are not their fault. That can train us to feel like we need to apologize for everything, and constantly say we’re sorry for things that aren’t a big deal.

  • Instead of saying, “I’m sorry for the delay in responding to this message”, say “Thank you so much for your patience, and for giving me some time to think about this.”
  • Instead of saying, “I’m sorry that I can’t do it,” say, “Thank you for your support and understanding.”
  • If someone points out an error typo, instead of saying “I’m sorry, I should have done a better job proofreading, say, “Thank you so much for letting me know, I’ll get that fixed now.”
  • If you join your class late on Zoom, instead of saying, “I’m sorry I’m late,” say, “Thanks for waiting, I really appreciate you all getting started on the warm-up while I was off-line.”

To clarify, I’m not saying that you should never apologize, and when you’ve done something that is offensive or hurtful, the response is probably going to be different than what I’m advocating for here, in order to have the necessary accountability to move forward.

But I’m talking about the little very human mistakes that we all make on a regular basis. We do not need to apologize for being human, for forgetting something minor, or for not doing something perfectly.

Set a culture with your class of thanking each other for bearing with one another’s faults, and giving each other space to be your full selves: your occasionally forgetful selves, your occasionally late selves, your occasionally typo-making selves.

Give the people around you space to work through whatever it is they’re experiencing and come back later to make things right. If a student has said something rude to you and you turn it into a capital offense, it’s going to require a lot more humility for that student to come back later and apologize or take ownership.

Sometimes you just need to say, “Alrighty then,” and keep moving along. Give the student a chance to get into a better headspace and then make it right. You can always initiate a conversation about it later if the student doesn’t do that, and you need to clear the air. But it’s okay to wait and let the student’s low mood — or your own low mood — pass before you have a conversation about it.

You can encourage the likelihood of students having these self-awareness and interpersonal communication skills by modeling it yourself. There will be times when you use an unnecessarily impatient or rude tone with your students, or sigh deeply and roll your eyes because you’re frustrated at having to repeat directions yet again.

When you get in a better headspace, tell your students, “Thank you for bearing with me earlier when I was feeling impatient. It wasn’t necessary for me to speak to you all that way and I want to try to speak to you in a kinder tone, even when I’m frustrated that some folks didn’t listen the first time. So thank you for just allowing me to feel that impatience even though I didn’t express it in the best way.”

This is how you create a class culture in which it is okay to have natural human responses like frustration, anger, sadness, lethargy, and lack of motivation.

I encourage you to allow people around you to have the space they need right now and do what they need to do to make it through this winter and spring. And give yourself space, too.

Don’t try to force yourself to conform to a small, narrow set of expectations and behaviors. Give yourself space to be frustrated and tired. It’s okay to feel all of the emotions.

You don’t have to be positive and energetic and upbeat and inspirational all the time. Yes, you are an educator, but you’re also a human. You are allowed to have human experiences. So are your students … so are their families.

This week, remember that you don’t’ have to make everything you do appear effortless: invite folks into the process and the work, and thank them for supporting you.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela created the first version of this site in 2003, when she was a classroom teacher herself. With 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach, Angela oversees and contributes regularly to...
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  1. Thank you for this article. It’s the first I’ve seen that gives educators permission to be human. I also love the idea of saying thank you instead of apologizing. Being from the south, I apologize for everything (rain, someone’s pain, the inability to use a coupon, etc). I look forward to changing my thought process to being appreciative to my mistakes 🙂

  2. I strongly encourage you to allow people around you to have the space they need right now and do what they need to do to make it through this winter and spring. You don’t have to be positive and energetic and upbeat and inspirational all the time. Yes, you are an educator, but you’re also a human. We must remember we are life long learners in this given profession of education.

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