The COVID upheaval has made teaching really interesting. For most teachers in the US, there was a “pivot to online” around mid-March, as the students began “learning from home.” Teachers had to rethink their course presentation and assessment, and they had to do it in a hurry. For me it was fairly simple—I credit previous experience teaching online (a gracious providence), the nature of my subject area, and the fact that I’ve already largely done away with unit tests in favor of other assessment methods (another gracious providence). I know that for my colleagues in activity-based subjects (e.g. fine arts, lab sciences), the pivot required a lot more adjustment and creativity, and my hat’s off to them.
Part of that change of situation included considering the various stresses on student performance. For my students the most obvious stressors were reduced access to library resources, lack of a place to concentrate, and in some cases reduced internet access. Some had family or other housing situations that greatly interfered with their studies.
And all of that calls for flexibility and other types of mercy. I didn’t tell my students this ahead of time, but I essentially did away with late penalties, and I let them try again when they really botched an assignment. And there were other considerations.
My thinking in this area has been influenced by past teachers who showed me mercy. I’d like to recount a couple of those instances.
For second-semester Greek—my undergrad minor—I had Dr. Richard Taylor, who is now a professor of OT at Dallas Theological Seminary. Going into the final, I had a high A and calculated that I could get a D on the final and still keep the A. No sweat.
I got careless in my preparation and completely overlooked what turned out to be a major emphasis on the exam (for you Greek bodies, it was the -μι verbs).
I flunked it. Ran the numbers, and my semester average was now 89.4. Juuuuust barely lost the A.
I went to Dr. Taylor’s office ready to plead my case. I’ve done solid A work all semester. I’ve demonstrated that I can master this stuff. I knocked and heard “Come in!”
“I’d like to talk about my grade,” I said. “About the B+.”
He pulled out the little green gradebook (remember those?) and looked it over, and then he looked up with just a hint of a smile.
“I don’t see any B+,” he said.
I’m told that an adage among lawyers is “When you’ve won, shut up.” So I did. And today my transcript shows an A- for Greek 102. (I just checked.)
I took a course on the Pauline Epistles taught by Dr. George Dollar. Dr. Dollar was an old-time, fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist, perhaps the prototype for the stereotype. As I recall, he taught at BJU for only a few years, and he never shied away from a fight.
The biggest assignment for that course was that we had to write a commentary on 1Corinthians. We had all semester, and I went right to work. I read and read and wrote and wrote. The day before it was due, Dr. Dollar reminded the class that our commentary on 2Corinthians was due tomorrow.
Second Corinthians?! I wrote on First Corinthians!
After class I stumbled down to the front of the lecture room and admitted my stupidity. To my astonishment, Dr. Dollar smiled and said, “That’ll be fine.”
“That’ll be fine.” And indeed it was.
Now, these are (or were, in the case of Dr. Dollar) two very different men, with very different personalities, approaches, and teaching styles. But in my formative years in academia they both showed me mercy, and nearly 50 years later I still remember. When a student comes to me needing mercy, even if he kinda deserves justice, I think of those two experiences—sometimes I even take the time to tell one of the stories—and I say, “I’m going to show you mercy. Someday you’re going to have an opportunity to show somebody else mercy, and on that day I want you to remember this one.”
To show mercy is to reflect the image of God. We will never show anyone as much mercy as God has shown us. These days, mercy is more needed than ever.