I recently read a description of someone’s grandmother and the phrase, ‘the strength of her kindness’, jumped out at me. We don’t often hold strength and kindness together in our thoughts. The two words are usually considered to be opposites. Kindness means being nice or sweet and not really expecting/requiring anything from anyone else. Strength means being tough and uncompromising, holding others to a higher standard or at least a standard we think is higher. As a result of the seeming incompatibility of these two words, I often have conversations with my colleagues and students about kindness that center around questions of being too kind and then appearing to be passive or weak. And then I have other conversations about strength centered around questions of being too uncompromising and unwilling to respond to contextual, individual situations. I think both of these conversations have incorrect assumptions about kindness and strength.
I find that we think about kindness the way we think about grace. We imagine that God’s grace is simply forgiveness for our sins that leaves us free of the burden of punishment and able to go on as we always have with the assurance that we’re “saved”. As teachers we equate grace to giving extensions on papers, excusing students from requirements, allowing students to break rules without consequences. I’ve even heard of ‘grace coupons‘ that students in Christian schools can use like ‘get out of jail free’ cards. I hear this word thrown around a lot in Christian contexts and I always find myself wanting to cry, “No, that is not grace! That is not who God is!”
God’s grace is always life-giving, always transformative, helping us turn towards Him and away from ourselves, making us more like Him. God is not interested in leaving us in our brokenness. How unkind that would be! He is the one who loves us, who instructs us with care. (Pr. 13:26; 12:2) God’s grace is God sharing His strength with us, the strength to be loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, gentle, and self-controlled. His grace allows ‘our souls to return to rest‘ because He shows us kindness, delivering our souls from death, our eyes from tears and our feet from slipping. (Ps. 114:7, LXX) There is nothing weak about grace that delivers from death!
I fear my kindness as a teacher, friend, parent, has often been weak, and therefore, not kind at all. I’m not saying that we should never show mercy to our students or that we shouldn’t be open to individual situations and unique needs requiring different responses. I am not interested in legalism or authoritarianism. But I am interested in education, in being a teacher, in doing what brings true life to my students, in helping them grow. To leave our students in ignorance, or in habits that are damaging to their well-being is unkind, unloving, and uncaring.
When kindness is a quality of spirit rather than a prescribed set of kind or unkind actions, it becomes an ethos or an orientation that infuses our practices as teachers. It represents an inner and outer integrity, although that integrity may not always be readily visible to an observer or initially understood by the person receiving the action. Sometimes we don’t understand how kind God is to us – particularly when He allows us to be shaken, or doesn’t rescue us immediately from the consequences of our actions. Sometimes our students won’t understand our actions as kindness, at least not until the fruit is revealed. However, even as God never falls short of His Fatherhood, we need to be sure we don’t fall short of our teacherhood. We exist to benefit our students in ways that are educative, redeeming and reconciling, but we do this with the strength of patience, gentleness and compassion.
The difficulty is that we are not yet completely like God. So along with the strength of our kindness must come more gifts of God’s grace – wisdom and discernment and humility. We will surely make mistakes and so we need to pay attention to the impact of what we think is kindness and be willing to change direction when we see that what we are doing is not helping, is not life-giving.
I sometimes see online postings written to teachers about what students remember and don’t remember about them. These letters focus on the ‘who‘ of teaching rather than the what and how, and encourage teachers to do what is most important – usually build strong relationships with their students. Even though I am sympathetic with this message and recognize that teachers can often be distracted by the trivial, I am also concerned that this message can undermine the nature of the relationship we have with our students. It is not our job to be remembered well, but it is our job to educate well – with kind strength.