My friend and colleague, Lisa Rivero, posted on the topic of “Classroom Grace” last week over on her blog. I’ve been thinking about her remarks ever since.
Lisa was talking about those magical moments that happen in classrooms, especially in humanities and social science classrooms, where an ordinary class period suddenly turns electric and students make exciting connections between the discussion topic and their own lives. It’s funny how unexpected those moments are. You can’t really plan for them; you can only be “prepared” so that when you recognize them, you can respond to them appropriately.
There is a word in rhetoric and politics that seems to fit here: kairos, a term from ancient Greece meaning the right or opportune moment. When the time for speaking or acting is ripe, you have to seize the moment. For teachers, kairos means the “teachable moment.”
The epiphany, that moment of insight (whether teacher or student) that comes with “getting” a concept, is almost a divine experience. “Grace” captures its essence pretty well. Suddenly you see clearly what was previously opaque, sort of like the scales falling from Saul’s eyes (Acts 9:18).
The moment of classroom grace I remember most clearly in my own experience occurred about ten years ago. Ironically, it happened in the same freshman humanities course that Lisa describes teaching in her blog. I was the new program director for our technical communication degree, and learning that job was eating into time that should have been going into course prep. Walking down the hall to my class one day, I was panicking. Caught up in program matters, I hadn’t even thought about what I was going to do in the classroom until that very moment. Now I had about ten seconds to come up with something, anything that could fill up the next fifty minutes. HELP!
And suddenly an idea came to me, like a little intuitive miracle. My class was studying “time,” just as Lisa’s class is studying “freedom.” My idea was a perfect 50-minute time-filler: I’d put people into six groups, give them time-related topics to discuss, and then have them report to the class what they’d come up with. Boom, done.
Three of the groups were easy to think of topics for: one could argue that the “past” was the most important aspect of time, another could argue that the “present” was the most important, and the third could argue that the “future” was the most important. Okay, I just needed three more time-related groups. One group would list every association they could think of to do with calendars; another would do the same thing with clocks and watches. Finally, the last group could list every time-related expression they could think of (“wasting time,” “time is money,” etc.) and talk about what those expressions revealed about our culture’s concept of time.
Whew, just in time. I walked into class, organized my groups, and set them to work. It was a GREAT class period. At the end of the quarter, my teaching evaluations were full of praise for this discussion. “I had never thought of time that way before,” was the gist of the comments.
Ironic, right? It was nothing more than a throwaway class exercise, just something I was grateful to have pulled out of thin air to fill fifty minutes in an emergency. Sometimes that’s how teaching works. Moments of classroom grace happen when you least expect them. Sometimes when you don’t even deserve them.
And they are almost always more about your students’ learning than about your teaching. Knowing this keeps you humble.