Learning to Save My Students Instead of Judging Them

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An encounter with the words of Jesus encourages a teacher to change his approach to his relationship with his students and his work.

One late summer day, nearly twenty years ago, I sat wrapped in a towel on the shore of Walden Pond, reading the Bible. It’s a beautiful place to be at that time of year. A few trees anticipated New England’s dazzling fall foliage. And while the pond’s deep waters still held remnants of the winter’s cold, its sun-kissed surface was perfect for long swims. I was there for both the swim and for the beauty. But I was also there to prepare for my work ahead teaching English in the Boston Public Schools. Each year, just before our pre-school faculty meetings, I used to spend a day by myself, outdoors in this beautiful setting, praying about the upcoming school year.

That day I was reading the Gospel of John, and a line leapt to my attention. It was the words of Jesus in John 12:47, “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.”

These words about judging and saving got me thinking about the English classes I was about to teach. I found myself picturing the papers my students wrote and what I did with them. I remembered all the marks and corrections I wrote on them and realized that the impact of this grading was to judge my students rather than to save them. I questioned what “saving” my students might mean in this context. Was I saving them so they could grow and flourish as human beings or was I saving them from failing a set of exams? Perhaps it was both. As I sat beside the lake, I felt an invitation from Jesus to change the way I taught.

During my training to become a teacher, I was exposed to many theories about teaching, but my mentor emphasized traditional rote learning. The way he taught writing was simple. He’d require students to regularly write assignments, and he’d highlight all their errors when he graded them. He followed a pattern: assign writing, collect it, mark it thoroughly emphasizing the mistakes, and pass it back with a grade on top. Occasionally he would allow students to submit rewrites of their work, fixing their errors to improve their grades. He would repeat this process again and again.

This style of teaching became the template from which I worked. When school was in session, I spent hours in the late afternoons and evenings with my red pen in hand, marking and grading students’ writing. However, I began to notice that this system wasn’t working very well. Few students rewrote their assignments, and those that did continued to make the same errors. I wondered how many of my students thought about their corrections or even read my comments. I came to realize that most students just looked at the grade at the top of their paper and then threw it in the garbage, or jammed it inside the back of a notebook where they’d never see it again.

I began to experiment with different techniques. I tried using green and purple pens for corrections, since I’d read that these colors are gentler and less critical than red. I changed the way I graded rewrites, to incentivize students to read my comments and try again. However, changes like these didn’t seem to make much difference. I was doing a good job with what educators call summative assessment—letting my students know just how good or bad their writing was. However, I was doing a pretty lousy job with what educators call formative assessment—giving students meaningful feedback that empowered them to learn.

As I sat beside the lake, Jesus’ words continued to impress upon me, “I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” I realized that my approach to teaching had become in this very particular way anti-Christ: judging, not saving, in its impact.

My students knew what I thought about their work, how good or bad I found their writing. I kept careful records of their performance, which I used when I needed to evaluate their progress. These evaluations were periodically communicated to both themselves and their parents and were kept on file in their school records. I was a skillful and meticulous judge. But this judgement had a limited impact on my students’ motivation and ability to improve their writing. It wasn’t elevating their skill or growing their confidence. It wasn’t improving their chances at college-acceptance or meaningful employment. It wasn’t helping them flourish. I was not saving my students, but judging them. What would it mean to flip this script?

Over the following weeks, I immersed myself in books about the teaching of writing. I discovered that when young people can write about topics that are meaningful to them, in forms that matter to them, they are motivated to write more. I learnt that when students’ writing is done in the context of relationships that are important to them, they care more about their work. These relationships can include trustworthy peer sharing and feedback, real audiences outside the classroom, and/or a teacher they experience as encouraging and interested in them.

I remembered my own experiences in high school. I enjoyed writing when my tenth grade English teacher, Ken Jones, assigned us weekly journals. We could write about whatever we wanted, and each week we handed in these assignments. Mr. Jones read them and always wrote a personal response. There was something about Mr. Jones’ thoughtful reading and his personal responses that showed me he cared, that my thoughts and my life and my words mattered. I formed a relationship with this teacher that continued past high school, and it gave me confidence and motivation to explore and deepen my understanding of the written word.

Inspired by this reflection and learning, I tried to imitate Christ’s loving kindness in my teaching of writing. I became less interested in judging my students and more animated by what it would look like to save them, or at least to improve their writing. I provided more choice to my students in their writing topics and formats. I taught them more about the writing process and met with each of them individually while they were working on assignments. And I gave them clear expectations and examples of what effective, delightful writing looked like. I still assigned student grades at the end of their writing process, because my school required that, but I didn’t waste time with comments and marks that they wouldn’t even read. Instead, I gave the students detailed comments on their rough drafts before they were graded, so they would actually read my comments and use them to improve their writing. And rather than an endless series of corrections, I’d focus my comments on one thing each student was doing well and one thing they could significantly improve upon. This way, every student, regardless of their weaknesses, would experience a teacher’s affirmation and encouragement. And every student, regardless of their strengths, would also have the opportunity to improve.

With this deliberate focus on trying to help my students flourish in their writings, I saw their confidence and skill improve. I found I was encouraging them and adding value to their lives. I was no longer judging them but saving them.

Clearly, this change in approach wouldn’t have occurred in me without God. Inspired by the words in John’s Gospel, I was convicted of the need to reassess my teaching methods. I believe the Spirit convicted me about patterns of judgement in my teaching and gave me a direction to explore—teaching and assessment that elevated and improved my students’ lives and work. I needed God’s insight and partnership.

God also needed me, a willing human being, to make this impact upon these students. Through prayer, Bible reading, and annual retreats, I kept my heart open to the Spirit of God. I also ensured that on a very practical level, I kept up to date with professional developments in good practice in teaching and learning.

God needed me and I needed God; we were truly working in partnership.

Question: What rhythms of reflection, prayer, or reading can open you up to God’s inspiration, conviction, and encouragement in how you do your work?

Steve Watson is the senior pastor of Reservoir Church (https://www.reservoirchurch.org/) in Cambridge, MA. Before that he was an urban public high school teacher and principal. Watson is also an avid hiker, a certified spiritual director, and a student in the Doctor of Ministry program at the Center for Open and Relational TheologyTo purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology. This post is reprinted from the Center for Open and Relational Theology with permission.