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Where does 'compassion' fit into your teaching practice?

October 29, 2016



Most of you will have had a teacher at school who you remember fondly. Maybe because they gave you jelly beans when you were sad, they stayed after school to help you with some tough homework, or they beamed you a smile when you walked in the door. Above all, it's probably because of how they made you feel.  


I absolutely believe that being this teacher and putting on a brave face everyday in a classroom must be pretty exhausting.  


You're at school at 7:30am and won't be leaving until at least 4 or 5pm (despite everyone thinking you work a casual 9am-3pm with indulgent holiday breaks). You have classes all day without any planning time and you have yard duty before school and at lunch, with a meeting at recess.  You were planning all last night for the day ahead and spent hours meticulously preparing resources. 


And then there's "Ash". The kid you can rely on for making your day a nightmare. Interrupting you in class, niggling the other students, talking back, and avoiding work.



Every educator has at least one "Ash" that comes to mind - the distractor, the disengaged, the defiant.


The day this child is away, you literally sigh with relief. I bet it feels really crappy to admit that (it's OK, you can tell me) because you're meant to be nurturing, caring and forgiving, with the patience of a kid sitting in front of a marshmallow. 





The last thing you feel like being is reflective, introspective or considerate.  But that's what "Ash" needs.  She needs you to be compassionate. Why? 


This is where compassion takes the centre stage. 


It's much easier for a child to display anger than admit vulnerability. Maybe it's the only way they know how to express their emotions based on what they have been role modelled at home. Perhaps they're not sure how to differentiate between feelings.  


From an attachment theory perspective, some children just won't be able to trust their teachers, or feel like they can rely on adults to look out for their best interests. Unfortunately, these negative experiences can lead to the development of social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. 


It's not personal.  You just need to get really good at knowing what this child is trying to communicate to you. 



What benefit is there for students if their teachers are compassionate?


Research shows that one adult can make a positive difference in a child's life through the rewiring of connections in the brain.  Legit. Some children unfortunately have lives and homes that are less than ideal for healthy learning and development and so that one person needs to be a teacher. 


Schools represent a unique opportunity to offer children support, guidance and connection each and every day. Plus, education is a protective factor. This means that remaining engaged in school can mitigate or eliminate other risk factors.  Let's make schools great places to be for kids. 


Take the example of Tom*, a 7-year-old boy in a family of eight children experiencing poverty. One of the youngest and so close to his mum, Tom really struggled to transition to Prep. He showed us anger, tears, separation angst and disengagement from learning. He was barely able to stay for two hours a day. But we persisted. We put in plans that were individualised, that involved his family, that up-skilled his teachers, and that provided security to his classmates.  It turns out that the anger he displayed was the facade for his inner anxiety.  It was much easier for him to show defiance and a "I don't care attitude" than to admit that he was scared, unsure and insecure. Where does compassion come into this? Well, his teacher was able to see that when Tom displayed anger, he was really crying out for help. It helped her to see beyond his behaviour and use her connection and understanding to support him.  


There are many more kids like Tom who need their teachers to be compassionate. To see that there is more than meets the eye.  And teachers need to know that there are ways to take this approach that are efficient, effective and don't take away from their other responsibilities. 




Some tips.


The reality is that you're exhausted and have many competing demands. Not to mention the other 24 kids to consider. I'm going to make this as easy as possible for you. 



Just how does one show compassion? 

  1. Get some answers 

    • Gather the opinions and perspectives of other staff members - teachers, welfare personnel, the education support staff and leadership. There may be more information to assist in building the broader picture of this child. 

    • Consider conducting an educational assessment. Language, speech, processing, and attention difficulties can all impact on an ability to learn, and in turn, a child's willingness to engage.   Kids in middle childhood start to become acutely aware of their weaknesses. I've seen the insecurities of children as young as 6 and 7 negatively impact on their learning and ability to be present in the classroom. 

  2. Don't be stressed about knowing exactly what the child needs or is trying to communicate.  Deciphering children's behaviour isn't always easy so focus instead on building relationships and connection.

  3. Ask a professional.  As an example, part of my work via assessment is helping to determine what is normal and what needs attention. This is an important step of any intervention as it helps to target efforts more usefully and efficiently.


Look past behaviour to see intention.  


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