Teaching gracefully

Phillip Yancy’s formative work, ‘What’s So Amazing About Grace‘ contains much that teachers can absorb and practice in our sometimes ungracious schools.

The surrounding hills were covered in a white blanket as I gingerly made my way down the hill to school in the cold morning air. Situated in the foothills of the Drakensberg mountains, it is rare but not impossible for our campus to receive such a snowfall. Walking on the slippery road past the school laundry I was greeted by the sound of multiple voices as the staff sang gospel songs while waiting for the return of power to start their work. Heavenly voices echoing through the snow-clad valley.

Grace notes.

The concept of grace notes is explored in Philip Yancey’s influential book, What’s So Amazing About Grace’. A view, a song, an unexpected 100 Rand note in your pocket, kindness from a stanger. Often underserved and mostly fleeting, grace notes ‘interrupt the monotonous background growl of ungrace’.

According to Yancey, while mercy is the withholding of something negative that we do deserve, grace is the receiving of something positive that we don’t deserve.  His writing essentially unpacks this idea and examines the ramifications of this radical concept. As a teacher and school counsellor the contents of this book have stayed with me ever since I opened it. It’s words infiltrating my thinking, and hopefully my pedagogical practice.

Attrocious mathematics

My favourite chapter, ‘The New Math of Grace’, examines the ‘atrocious mathematics of the gospel’. What sense does it make for a woman to throw money away, almost literally, by pouring a pint of exotic perfume (worth a year’s wages) over the feet of a carpenter.


What shepherd in their right mind would leave a flock of ninety-nine sheep to the mercy of predators and thieves, to go and search for just one? And no, the two tiny coins of an old woman dropped into the temple collection bucket, cannot be more valuable than the large donations of the wealthy.

And yet this ‘atrocious’ counter cultural approach is refreshing. Nourishment in a grace starved world. In our performance driven society, time is money and favour must be earned. From banks, to frequent flyer programmes, to company pay scales, ungrace has polluted our world. Even the idea that ‘God helps those who helps themselves‘ has been written into many peoples version of the Bible.

Grace in schools

Schools, as a microcosm of our harsh and often graceless world, are no different. Young people’s worth is measured and graded throughout their school careers. Be it ‘A’ symbols or 1st Team selections, performance is recognised and rewarded by certificates, badges, and the colours on or of blazers. The race, it seems, is to the swift and the battle is to the strong.

The message to pupils in this world is clear. Earn your place. Like the adults around them children are often exhausted and anxious. Desperate to prove their worth.

Do we recognise that for some children just getting up and putting on their uniform can be as much of a contribution as the child who pulls on the 1st Team jersey?

Cutting through this earthly clutter is the message from a lovesick father, ’You matter’. God judges the heart not the outward appearance. This is a message teenagers in particular need to hear . Often, and in a variety of ways. Places and spaces where children can be themselves and know that they are accepted for who they are.

Sometime a grace note can be another person. Teachers can be a grace note in the lives of their pupils. It’s interesting but when that one child goes off on their own path the other ninety-nine are watching to see perhaps how we will respond when it is there turn to stray. Do we recognise that for some children just getting up and putting on their uniform can be as much of a contribution as the child who pulls on the 1st Team jersey? That the child cleaning up on detention is as significant as the Honours student who cleans up at prizegiving? Maybe all that wasted time and resources demanded by that needy pupil is no different to the alabaster jar broken at the feet of another individual centuries ago?

Published around a quarter of a century ago this book, dealing as it does with timeless issues, is still relevant today. It’s paradigm shifting prose can be applied in all areas of life and is a very real guide to being salt and light in this world. For educators though it is particularly pertinent. The more we take on this message at the very heart of the gospel the more we can be notes of grace in the lives of those who need our song most.


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