The strength of her kindness

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.

6 responses

  1. Thanks Kim for this thoughtful post. Following on from being educated well, which I fully agree with, I have been recently studying the works of the education philosopher R.S Peters and this post made me think of his ideas. He had problems with the word “education.” He thought it to be vague and imprecise. He believed education to be an end in itself and to speak of the “aims” of education was redundant because education is the aim. So what might this suggest? Maybe that worthwhile education is transformative and would involve an initiation into worthwhile activities. A worthwhile education satisfies a reason-based truth seeking nature, or the concern for the truth written into human life. Truth is propositional, and expressed in statements that are subject to proof or disproof. A concern for truth means that the teacher’s role is critical because she must actually teach and teach well, that is, pass on context-transcendent knowledge and understanding which she has and the pupil does not enjoy.
    If the teacher is to teach truth, then the main purpose of the teacher is not just to impart knowledge but to give the pupils a sense of evidence, of what comprises a valid and sound argument, and by doing so, then the student can go on with the subject by themselves. The teacher must help the learner understand what counts as evidence and how to draw a conclusion from the evidence. This is critical if education and the teacher is concerned with truth. Essentially to be educated implies a transformation, that it, a moral and cognitive transformation. I know there is more to education but this is surely a necessary feature of education? Some thoughts anyway.

    • Thank you for these thoughts, Matthew. I appreciate the concern for truth in your comments and the need for teachers to provide evidence for the learner so that truth is understood and becomes part of the learner – transforming them. I agree that propositions and sound arguments can provide evidence for the learner, but there is also the need for what Abraham Heschel calls “reliving the significance”. As you say, the teacher can’t just impart knowledge, and the most vital evidence for truth is its significance in real life, and in particular the life of the teacher. Then the teacher can call to the depths of the student through his or her depth. I think this ability to become the truth or to become one with the truth is the strength our students need from us. I think it is also why Christ sets such high standards for teachers in Matthew 18.

  2. Great post, Kim. Just leading a Bible Study on The Lord’s Prayer and the Exodus connection to it. The biblical understanding behind both events (the praying of the prayer and the deliverance from Egypt) is two-fold. We have been saved by God’s grace/kindness from something AND to something – A new way of living, thinking, loving, being. To only be saved from something is to not be saved at all from a biblical viewpoint. This would be like God saving Israel from Egypt and then deserting her in the desert. Relationship with God, or one’s students, requires both grace and commitment to the well being of the other – that is the strength of God’s kindness.

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