Thinking intentionally about compassion

I’ve been thinking a lot about compassion over the last seven months. It started waaaaaaay back in December 2020 when a colleague emailed me an episode of the Freakonomics podcast. He listened to it and thought that I’d enjoy it. The episode was called How to cure a compassion crisis? and featured two physicians, Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli, who talked about their extensive research on the science behind compassion in the field of medicine. It was utterly fascinating mainly because it affirmed the value of my own awkward, emotional dispositions — especially as they relate to teaching. Five other teachers at my school had similar feelings. The podcast struck a chord with us. In January, smack in the middle of remote learning, we decided to do something about it. We wanted to do some informal research and grassroots professional learning.

We were curious to see how compassion was showing up (or not showing up) in our teaching. What were our students’ perceptions of compassion based on their interactions with us? We figured if we could identify specific things we were doing to make our students feel cared for, then we could be more aware of these things and do them more. Trzeciak and Mazzarelli make the point that compassion, which is in simplest terms can be defined as empathy plus action, can be learned and improved and this is exactly what we set our targets on. Besides, according to the research, compassion is not only beneficial for the receivers of it, but also for those who dispense it. It was a win-win.

We decided to adapt the survey mentioned by Trzeciak and Mazzarelli in podcast that helps to measure compassion, the CARE measure, and give it to our students a few times in the spring. We met after each administration of the survey to analyze the data. I also read Trzeciak and Mazzarelli’s book, Compassionomics, which details their research on compassion, and brought that to our debriefs.

What did we learn? Glad you asked!

  • Compassion looks different for different people. There were some acts of caring that I did, like virtual handshakes, that other teachers would never go for. The same goes for me. I think many of us thought there was a magic script we could follow to show compassion towards students. It didn’t work that way for us (or maybe we just failed to synthesize our results, which is probably more likely). We found that much of what we did was unique to the person doing it and the context of our relationships.
  • Authenticity is everything. Because of the multitude of ways students’ felt our compassion, we accepted that teacher authenticity was paramount. In other words, however compassion decided to show up for us in our teaching, what mattered most was that we were being real. In this way, being genuine was itself a form of compassion. Students can easily sniff out our inauthentic attempts to reach them, so we felt it was best to let our compassion grow from within the confines of who we are.
  • Compassion can exist on an institutional level. This was not readily apparent when I started this project because compassion is normally associated with individual people and their interpersonal relations. But the more we spoke about our successes, failures, and missed opportunities to show compassion, the more I realized that class and school-wide policy can be constructed to reflect our beliefs about compassion too. Grading and discipline policies are examples. How might the compassion we seek on a one-to-one basis be institutionalized? Sometimes answering this question isn’t possible or even appropriate, but sometimes it is and should be sought out.
  • It’s hard to be compassionate and not lower the bar. There was tension throughout our compassion experiment when it came to extending our students grace while not enabling them. We found this particularly challenging with over a year of remote learning on our backs, the piles of make up work growing, and summer school bearing down on us. How do we transition moments of empathy into moments of productivity and purposeful planning? How can we be there for students, but also help them dig themselves out of a hole? We found no answers to these questions that we were proud of, but we were able to lean on each other in acknowledging their complexity. Despite the resurgence of in-person learning this fall, I don’t see this dilemma going anywhere.
  • Be aware of love languages. As our exploration of compassion was coming to an end, an understanding of teacher-student “love languages” was highlighted as an important aspect to the work. The idea is based on the book Love Languages by Gary Chapman, which describes how every person has a primary emotional language that they use when interacting with others. According to Chapman, this language directs how we process emotions and feel cared for. We hypothesized that in order to best to show compassion to our students, we should be aware of our students’ educational love languages (as well as our own). For some students, providing an extension on assignment meant the world to them. For others, taking a few minutes to listen to them vent about a rough morning was what they needed. Apprehending the unique ways our students feel cared for is a major task, but a necessary one in getting through to them.

I left the school year proud of the “action research” we had done, but couldn’t help but look forward to next year. In late June, after our last meeting, a burning question lingered for me: How might how our learnings around compassion translate to in-person learning next year? Just because remote learning is coming to an end doesn’t mean its effects will too. We’re going to be grappling with them for a long time and distinct levels of compassion are still going to be needed. And though much of the compassion work I did with my colleagues centered on compassion for students, I also began expanding it to include colleagues and ourselves.

Thankfully, Math for America gave me the opportunity to take these ideas to the Summer Think last week. The Summer Think is MƒA’s three-day teacher-led summer conference. It was virtual this year and the theme was Healing, Recovery, and Transition. I called my workshop “Keeping our Compassion” and it was essentially an hour-long brainstorming session on how the compassion we’ve developed — for our students, our colleagues, and ourselves — might reemerge next year.

A major theme for folks was self-care. Considering what we’ve been though as educators, this wasn’t terribly surprising. We can’t compassionately receive students if we ourselves aren’t feeling the love, right? Something else that was brought up was continuing to have constant check-ins with students, which was a regular part of remote learning since its inception in March 2020. This meant remembering to step away from content at times to connect with students on different, more personal levels. It also meant trying to support the whole student, not just the academic-facing one. Other teachers mentioned more practical things, like more equitable grading and maintaining flexible deadlines for assignments. I sensed angst when it came to lowering the bar.

A heartwarming moment for me happened at the end of conference. On the last day, all 60+ teachers were asked to share one word that captured their Summer Think experience. Over the course of the three days, there were workshops on a wide array of topics from Hispanic Heritage Month to organization to talking circles to instructional routines — all led by outstanding teachers. We did a lot and there was a lot to reflect on.

What words did people choose? Below is the word cloud that was displayed at the conference after everyone hit submit on their word. What word is largest and at the center of it all?

You guessed it. Compassion.

Word cloud

I’m grateful that what started out as a colleague emailing me an episode of a podcast turned into so much intentional thinking about something so important. We’ll see where it goes from here, but as I reunite with students in the coming months, I hope I can lead with compassion. Just like the word cloud, I hope I magnify and center it in my teaching.


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