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The Second Chance

April 13, 2006

Beth Eliason - China

Walking back to my home one night two weeks ago after a meeting with my writing class from last term, I discovered what I wanted to share with you in this special Lenten message.

That unusual evening meeting was to tell students what they needed to do to finish their work from last term. (They knew already, but I had to give them a reminder.) I’d been ill during exam time and was unable to chase them down to get them to complete their assignments. The school allowed me to delay submitting their grades.

Four students were in a particularly precarious situation and would fail the course without their missing work. I took the four outside the classroom to make them aware of this fact and to give them personal encouragement to complete their writing. Two of them were so far behind, I really didn’t have a lot of hope. I wasn’t sure my words rang true and feared that they were really too late to have much effect.

I’m pleased to tell you that all of the students made the necessary effort, turning in their journals and other writings last week. Their words were worth waiting for! The second chance they’d been given paid off!

Last term I had two classes of first-year students. They’d never had a foreign teacher before. In the classroom, their “deer-in-the-headlights” looks of alarm and confusion took a while to relax. But then the first major one-on-one oral exam presented a new challenge, and probably an appropriate reason to panic.

We foreign teachers must consciously devise strategies to ease students over this hump into the territory of budding confidence. We walked through a practice exam. We discussed how to prepare for each part of the exam. We practiced in class with students alternating roles of student and teacher. But nothing really prepares students – or their teacher – for the real thing!

Students sit across from me, frozen. Moments pass as the “wheels turn”, or perhaps don’t. Some students risk starting to speak and after some hesitancy, are surprised to discover they’ve answered the questions! But some students sit staring into their laps, finally saying, “I don’t know” or “Sorry” to indicate they don’t want to continue. This is a moment of failure for them as well as of discouragement for me. What more could I have done to prepare them? And what could I do in that very moment to lift their sagging spirits?

The second chance. That’s what’s worked for me. This testing encounter is an opportunity for us to communicate. Offered another chance to take the exam, students relax and promise they’ll do better next time. Many will. For a few, a third or even fourth chance may be necessary. Each of these brief engagements is another chance for us to speak together, another chance to get each student just a little bit closer to that territory of confidence. It’s so important to make them believe they can do it!

My students give me second and third chances, too. When they can’t understand me, they let me try again to explain a class exercise or homework assignment. They accept my apology when my anger surfaces, usually in response to students chatting in Chinese in the middle of class, a source of real frustration. Students enter the classroom with the enduring expectation that they will be engaged, even after a lesson or exercise in a previous class has fallen flat.

We all have our shortcomings and welcome the acceptance and forgiveness that encourage us to do better. And it’s important to believe we can do better!

During Lent, when we are called to self-examination and scrutiny of our faults, and to a practice of penitence for these shortcomings, we are led to recognize the blessed effect of God’s forgiveness in our own lives. This deep awareness of having been forgiven is absolutely necessary if we are to experience the joy and fullness of life which Jesus teaches and promises are available to us all.

Thank God for second chances!

Beth Eliason

Beth is a missionary with the Amity Foundation through Church World Service. She serves as an English teacher.

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