Systems and Grace in Schools

A couple of Sundays ago, my minister, David Mallory, preached a sermon titled Systems and Grace using the scripture of Genesis 21:8-19. David (really the Bible tells the story so he was just paraphrasing) tells the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Abraham and Sarah struggled to have kids initially.  As was the custom during that time, Sarah chose Hagar, the beautiful member of the house staff, to help Abraham start a family. Hagar and Abraham celebrate the birth of Ishmael, but soon after, Abraham and Sarah have a baby named Isaac. As you can imagine, this was awkward for everyone, especially for Sarah. Like super awkward…

While it was common practice for men in that time to have multiple wives, the OW (original wife) was still the queen of the household. Sarah eventually goes to Abraham and asks him to banish Hagar and Ishmael because they just aren’t fitting in with the family. Abraham is crushed by this request because this is his son – his first born son. However, due to their customs (read: their systems), Abraham is forced to grant Sarah’s request, and he kicks Hagar and Ishmael out of his house. David paints the picture of Hagar and Ishamel walking out of the door for the last time as “Abraham falls to the floor cursing this unrelenting, unforgiving system” (Mallory, 2017).

Because of a system, Abraham banishes his wife and first-born son out into the world with no protection, no future, and nowhere to go.

This is nothing against Sarah or Abraham personally. They were just doing what the system allowed them to do, which from their perspective, appears to be caring for their family’s best interest. David challenges his parishioners by saying, “I wonder when the system starts inflicting pain and suffering on the people it was set up to protect, is the system accomplishing what it was set up to do?”

This question has stuck with me ever since that sermon. When I look at schools, I see so many systems that were designed to help at one point in time (in some cases, decades ago), but now they are hurting, restricting, and preventing.

Let’s say a student forgets his lunch money so he eats fruits and vegetables (a usual fall back for most school cafeterias). Healthy? Sure. Filling for a student who might only eat lunch today? No. In this system, the student might go hungry for the rest of the day.

Let’s say a teacher and his/her students work hard over the course of an entire year all for their hard work to culminate in a four-hour bubble test. A student doesn’t test well and fails the test.  The teacher is then held accountable for that test (maybe even in their paycheck).  In this system, both a hard working student and teacher feel like a failure.

Let’s say a student struggles in class from a number of learning disabilities, and a school is only able to offer limited accommodations (read: resource classes, separate setting, mark in book, copy of teacher notes, etc.) due to lack of resources. The student is placed in resource classes, falls into a cycle of underperformance, and continues to fall further behind. In this system, a student struggles for most of their early educational years and drops out at 16.

In all three of these instances, the systems that schools have in place were designed to help…initially.  I don’t blame anyone who created those systems – just as I don’t blame Abraham and Sarah.

Think about it like this…

For lunch, we used to say, “at least they are getting a FREE nutritious option.”  For testing, we used to say, “this is the most accurate measure of everything a student learned.”  For struggling students, we used to say, “these classes are smaller and more individualized.”  But I think we can all ask, “Is the system accomplishing what it was set up to do?” (Mallory, 2017).

Unlike the story of Haggar and Ishmael, I have seen glimmers of grace shining in schools.  I’ve seen teachers donate their own money to an anonymous cafeteria account so students can eat a full, healthy meal if they are running low on money that day.  I’ve heard superintendents and principals tell their teachers and staff that they are worth more than a testing statistic and stand by it when the scores don’t come back as high as some think they should be.  I’ve seen teachers and administrators re-work entire schedules to fit the needs of ONE student when they are falling behind in the curriculum.  In all of those instances, we let grace shine through, and our students benefit greatly!

I agree with how David ends his sermon: “…I’m just wondering, how much different would our systems be? How much different would our world be if we could all make some room for just a little more grace?”

How much different would our schools if we could all make some room for just a little more grace?