The Good Faith Explanation

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By Gerry Hess from Gonzaga University School of Law

“There is a good faith explanation for other people’s behavior.” That principle can help keep us healthy as teachers, lawyers, and humans. As teachers, we should assume good faith on the part of our students and colleagues. As lawyers, we should begin with the premise that clients and opposing lawyers are acting in good faith. As people, we can enhance our relationships with friends and family by assuming the best in other people.

In my life as a teacher, I try to operate under the assumption that there is a good faith explanation for my students’ actions. But sometimes I drift away from this assumption. Nearly every time that I lose sight of my good faith assumption, students act in ways that remind me why I should not have strayed from the principle.

A recent example of my misplaced assumptions came out of a midterm exam that my 1L students completed. My midterm was the first graded feedback most 1Ls received in their law school careers. Students got their scores and began to review their exams on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, we had our first class together after students had received their scores. I saved the last five minutes of class to talk about the midterm and to invite students to meet with me to review their performance.

When the last five minutes of class arrived, I began my comments about the midterms. Two minutes into my comments, with three minutes of class to go, students began packing up. A couple students stood up, ready to leave. As I continued to speak, I was getting mystified and irritated. Thoughts raced through my head – “My students are being disrespectful; they have never before acted this way at the end of class; they must be really upset about the midterm; I deserve better treatment than this…”

After concluding my comments, I returned to my office and began meeting with students about their midterm performance. After reviewing an exam with a student who performed very poorly on the exam, he said, “Do you know why we packed up early today?” I thought, “Oh boy, this is going to be ugly…” He then said, “We all felt really bad about packing up early, but a tutor scheduled a review session to prepare us for another midterm in a room that holds only 25 people and told us that only the first 25 students to arrive would be able to participate.”

Yep, that would be a good faith explanation for my students’ behavior. I began my next class by writing on the board “good faith explanation” and recounted for my students how I forgot that principle at the end of our last class and how their behavior reminded me, one more time, why my life as a teacher, lawyer, and person is better when I assume that there is a good faith explanation for other people’s behavior. We all had a good laugh and proceeded as though I had not fallen of the good faith wagon.

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