A Grace-Centered Teaching Philosophy, Katherine Frankel

Teaching Practice

In the first semester of my PhD, during a composition pedagogy course, I was required to write a declaration of principles, a description of pedagogical beliefs that I carry forth and implement in the classroom. By the end of the semester, I wrote a reflection on these beliefs, and the following is a description of my grace-centered teaching philosophy that has been substantially influenced by the circumstances surrounding Covid, as follows (edited for context): 

The Fall 2020 semester has been strange, and sometimes exciting and uplifting, but often stressful and overwhelming and doubt- and depression-inducing. I’ve felt this semester that my belief of extending grace to students has been amplified because of the circumstances surrounding the pandemic. I have often said that if I had planned to start my first year of college this semester, I would have deferred a year because I would not have performed well with virtual college. This is still true; despite the fact that I, and so many other compassionate instructors, have been trying to do everything we can to help our students, I would have hated to begin undergrad fully online. I took a total of two online college classes my entire four years of college, and I would wake up in a panic some nights for one of them because I had forgotten deadlines and kept receiving zeros for assignments I forgot I had to turn in. Honestly, beginning college during this pandemic seems like a complete nightmare to me, and I’ve been humbled, inspired, and heartbroken by the conversations we as graduate instructors have had with our students, and discussion of how our students have struggled: academically, physically, and, of course, mentally. I’m in complete awe of the students who have started college this semester and survived. 

Our students are not just students, and their entire lives should not be wrapped up in our composition classrooms.

Our students are not just students, and their entire lives should not be wrapped up in our composition classrooms. Peter Elbow is my pedagogical idol, and I yearn to be the type of open-minded and compassionate instructor he is. Although I’m fully aware that the relationship between an undergraduate student and instructor is much different than the relationship between a graduate student and instructor, I want to be like Elbow in that students find me approachable, and interesting, and kind, and they know I’m not going to ruin their lives because they forgot to turn in a paper. My belief of giving grace to students and treating students like actual people has been strengthened on so many levels this semester because of the pandemic. This semester, I accepted late work and greatly reduced late penalties. I allowed a considerable number of missed discussion board posts without penalty. I reached out to my students more than I normally would have, and a few times, when students used private discussion board spaces to vent about serious problems they had relating to Covid-19, I told them, in earnest, that I was thinking about them and hoped that they would cut themselves breaks and give themselves grace. This grace-centered teaching philosophy caused me to care for my students not only within, but also outside of the classroom, where I thought about them and prayed for their well being often. 

My definition of giving students grace has extended beyond the “walls” of the online classroom this semester, and has really changed what I recognize to be “giving grace.” I wish that I could collect and publish the stories of all my students detailing what they have endured this semester, so that everyone else would realize that the student who never turned anything in on time is actually an extremely bright person who is completely panicked by everything at the moment. Because of all of this, the one principle that has affected my pedagogy the most this semester has been giving students grace, and I’m glad it has.

Teaching Reflection

When I began teaching first-year writing courses during my MA in English, I required that all of my students submit their major assignments in hard copy to me on the respective due dates. Grading on hard copy was easier on the eye, I thought, in my first weeks of teaching, but more so, it was how I as a student submitted work and received feedback. I suppose there might have been some desire to emulate the professors I admired by responding to students’ writing in scratchy cursive with colored pens. Also part of this emulation, I founded my policy on late work: work was due on the due date with no exceptions; students could submit late work within 48 hours of the original due date for a point deduction, but after 48 hours, no late work would be accepted (I should note that none of my wonderful students ever submitted late work after the 48-hour window, so I’m not sure if I would have actually enforced the zero post-48 tolerance). I copied this late work policy from one of my successful professors who I considered to be a leader in our field, and whose stringent policies matched my Type A personality. In that earliest period of my composition instructorship, I felt that I demanded punctuality and organization from my students in a way that matched what they would face in “the real world”—ha. 

In March of 2020, my pedagogical standards were challenged, first by the simple change in modality when my steadfast love of hard copy submissions vanished in lieu of the online submissions required by the new Covid-friendly online learning setting. With these unprecedented circumstances, faculty within my department began to emphasize that instructors should be kind to students, be understanding, and offer flexibility around due dates. Right after Spring Break and the last conference I would attend in-person for a long time, two foundational principles of my pedagogical philosophy had dissolved. 

When I began my PhD in Rhetoric and Composition in the fall of 2020, Covid was still rampant and teaching and learning conditions were still uncertain. After teaching a few weeks of hybrid classes, my first-year writing course transitioned fully online. Toward the end of that semester, in a pedagogy course, I was asked to reflect on how any of my teaching principles had changed; at that point, I began to realize that my entire teaching philosophy had shifted from punctuality and organization to grace. 

Now, I am in my sixth semester teaching, still in the earliest stages of my experience as an instructor, yet with a grace-centered teaching philosophy that I hope to maintain throughout the entirety of my career. When I changed the center of my teaching philosophy, I suppose there weren’t any major student responses that I immediately saw because of the fact that my pedagogy evolved during a pandemic, when a million other things were already changing for students. The students that I teach now, in the fall of 2021, have never known me as the punctuality police. 

These days, I expect timeliness from my students and still have a (much less intense) late work penalty, yet I also freely grant extensions when students ask (within reason). If a student struggles to complete work on time and meet deadlines, I root myself not in doubt, but in Peter Elbow’s believing game. I sprinkle emails with questions of “What do you need from me to help you succeed?” and “Is everything okay?” in efforts to care for my students as people rather than just as students. Because of this deadline grace, I have found my students make much more candid requests to turn in late work, as opposed to offers to scan me copies of obituaries. I want my classroom to be one where students learn, are challenged, and are held accountable, yet in a safe, understanding environment. 

Now, I offer students grace in a way I feel I am called to do and in the way I wish to be treated in life as well. While the pandemic has changed many facets of life and education, this change in my teaching philosophy is the one I am most grateful for. 

Katherine Frankel, University of Cincinnati

Katherine Frankel is a 3rd-year doctoral candidate of Rhetoric and Composition at the University of Cincinnati. She has worked in college writing centers and taught first- and second-year college writing and English for the past several years. Her recent research has centered around 19th-century literacy acquisition and materiality and disengagement within the composing process.