Presupposing Good Intentions
- “I can tell the teacher doesn’t like me just by the way she looks at me. I raise my hand and she never calls on me. That’s why she gave me a C.”
- “Coach is so unfair—he totally plays favorites. I played way better than Susie, but she started.”
- “Instead of complaining to me about the grade, why doesn’t his dad make the kid study?!”
- “The administration is just on a power trip…”
- “Jenny seems like she wants to fail my class!”
Of the many gifts that St. Ignatius left us, few are as effective at cutting through mistaken judgments about others as his “Presupposition.” This little gem comes at the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, and is a foundation of Ignatian spirituality. The Presupposition is one of the secrets of success of Jesuit works down through the centuries.
When we encounter someone who sees an issue differently than we do, the human response is to assume the person is foolish, ignorant, or perhaps even just mean. According to Ignatius, when we encounter someone we disagree with, what Christ would have us do is to check our emotions, and “presuppose” good intentions on the part of the other.
Schools are full of emotionally-charged areas ripe for disagreement: grades, playing time, church teaching, tryouts and dress codes and disciplinary situations. Thus, the Presupposition is an essential tool in a healthy Jesuit school.
The Presupposition suggests that when we find ourselves in conflict, “Let it be presupposed that every good Christian ought to be more eager to put a good interpretation on a neighbor’s statement than to condemn it.” You might want to read that line again, as it runs contrary to human nature. Many Jesuits simply say at times of tension, “We need to put the best possible interpretation on that…”
As Rev. James Martin, SJ, explains in The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, “While most people would agree with (the Presupposition) in principle, we often do just the opposite. We expect others to judge us according to our intentions, but we judge others according to their actions. In other words, we say to ourselves, My intention was good. Why don’t they see this? But when it comes to other people, we often fail to give them the benefit of the doubt. We say, ‘Look what they did!’ …The Presupposition steers you away from anger and so provides the other person with the emotional space needed to meet you on more peaceful territory” (235-6).
In my sixteen years as a JHS administrator, I have found myself using the Presupposition hundreds of times—and forgetting to do so thousands of times. As academic vice principal, much of my time was spent with students who were struggling academically. All too often, it was tempting for me, a teacher, or even a parent to conclude that Jimmy’s or Sally’s academic problems were the result of simple laziness or lack of motivation.
When we presuppose good intentions on the part of the student—of course she wants to do well academically!—we often find the real root of the student’s struggles. Sometimes, the student is just unmotivated. More often, however, struggles at school are a symptom of something deeper, such as family problems, learning disabilities, social challenges, or mental or physical health issues.
The Presupposition works on all kinds of levels. Over the years, I have heard myriad statements supposedly made by JHS educators that sound misguided, unfair, or even mean-spirited. Our teachers, counselors, coaches, and administrators are far from perfect. Still, in presupposing good intent in my colleagues, followed by honest conversations with them, I have often discovered that the allegedly mean statement was actually intended as a compliment, or a friendly challenge, or something else entirely.
As school leaders, we sometimes assume that students who get in trouble are miscreants rather than great kids who have simply made a mistake. In the same vein, students and parents may assume that administrators who respond strongly to infractions are overreacting, instead of presupposing that we may have reflected carefully on knowledge of extenuating circumstances, or on insight gained from years of experience.
Similarly, it is tempting at times for Jesuit’s educators to wonder about the motives of a student or parent who questions a grade, a JUG, a coaching decision, or a school policy. That’s why we began the first faculty meeting of this school year with the Presupposition.
It’s amazing what happens when we assume that our parents and students care about the same things that we do: We all want our students to be challenged, and supported, and treated fairly, and held accountable, and loved. It’s a complex equation, and it will take all of us working together in good faith to balance it. Sometimes we will mess it up, and inevitably we will have disagreements. But that’s ok, as long as we presuppose that the other is acting with good intentions.
So, the next time you are tempted to call that coach or email that teacher in a fit of pique, take a deep breath and try presupposing good intentions on the part of the person on the other end. We will do the same, trying our Ignatian best to keep alert the better angels of our nature.
Paul Hogan, Principal