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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MƒA and The Teachers on Fire Podcast

I was a recent guest on the Teachers on Fire podcast to talk about the MƒA community and share my experiences as a MƒA Master Teacher. It was cool, I enjoyed it. I was joined by two other MƒA teachers, Vielca Anglin and Jude Julien, along with the president of MƒA, John Ewing. Our talk was an hour long (streamed live here) and nowhere near sufficient to convey the power of the MƒA community. That said, because I can, I’m going to continue the conversation here, with my ever-listening keyboard.

What is probably my biggest takeaway from the last eight years as a MƒA teacher has been what I’ve learned about teacher leadership. At the most straightforward level, I have led workshops at my school and given talks at local, regional, and national conferences because of ideas that the MƒA community helped incubate and sharpen over the years. But in addition to learning how to lead professional development, I’ve also helped create summer conferences for other teachers to lead workshops. I’ve given a TED Talk-style presentation. With the support of MƒA, I’ve even been a yearlong mentor for an early-career teacher. All of these experiences have contributed greatly to my growth as an educator. Maybe for other teachers these types of experiences are standard, but not for me. Ten years ago I’m not sure I would’ve believed I could do any them at a respectable level. MƒA changed all that.

The beauty of MƒA is that it puts teachers in positions to lead and learn from each other, then steps back and watches the magic happen. I think MƒA can do this because they ambitiously and unapologetically trust teachers. That’s the key. And this trust is baked into everything they do. It shows up in how they talk about teachers and the teaching profession, yeah, but it also manifests itself organizationally, structurally, and financially. Many noble people and organizations wax poetic about how they champion teachers and the teaching profession, but MƒA has the receipts. These receipts are lengthy and filled edge-to-edge with stories just like mine. MƒA is doing the work.

The Teachers on Fire podcast itself is a great example of MƒA’s unyielding and fervent belief in lifting up teachers. Prior to it, I had listened to similar podcasts and panel discussions, but was never invited to participate in one. They just seemed out of my league. So when I was asked to take part by MƒA, and subsequently encouraged by John and MƒA to openly share my experiences, I felt empowered. I felt like an expert. I felt seen. I felt trusted. Undoubtedly, these are feelings that will fuel my continual growth. As a teacher, there’s really nothing more you can ask for.

Interestingly, I think MƒA’s trust in me indirectly influences how I interact with folks in my educational circle, including my students and colleagues. When you’re constantly affirmed, honored, and given autonomy, especially when the system you operate in imparts a very different message to you, these beliefs are easier to bestow upon others. You see their value firsthand. Thinking about my classroom and my practice, I think this is true for me. MƒA has gracefully modeled for me what it means to honor and have sustained professional faith in those around you and, what’s most important, to do it systematically. They have armed me with a capacity to trust, to let go. At it’s core, it’s a willingness and an ability to put others in a position reach their potential and then step back and watch the magic happen.



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Some standouts from my Two Cents series

Entering last school year, I knew it was going to be a roller coaster. So much of what happened was unpredictable and unclear and unstable. To help chronicle my adventures as a teacher during this time, I decided to write two humble sentences each school day and publish them here on my blog. The goal for these sentences was to capture some of the impressions, feelings, experiences, or thoughts I had each day. These sentences were small, but mighty. Discrete, but representative. Ordinary, but special. Most of these reflections were composed in a haste and often forget about until days later. I posted them each week and called the series My Two Cents.

Today I went back and reread my sentences and felt like I was reliving an unforgettable year. Here are some standouts. There is at least two sentences from each week. They are organized sequentially.


September 18, 2020
Midday, I took a walk in the park as a result my extreme disappointment/anxiety with my school’s “you must turn on your camera” policy.

September 21, 2020
Teachers teaching students in empty classrooms throughout the school. By far the most bizarre first day of school ever.

September 24, 2020
Feeling isolated in both body and spirit. I have no idea who I’m teaching; the future seems bleak.

October 5, 2020
They have free breakfast and lunch for staff now. I had both, yum!

October 15, 2020
I fell into a discussion today with my eighth period class which let me know that, despite our long distance relationship, we are in fact making progress. Whether it is pumpkin spice, the Lakers, oranges, velvet red cake, or Ninja, I sense that the glue is forming.

October 16, 2020
I had anxiety about my cogen not showing up today, but they did, and it was great.

October 26, 2020
Responding to email is more taxing than I could ever imagine. 

October 27, 2020
Out of sheer mental exhaustion and frustration, I find myself bypassing meetings and forgoing previous commitments. This is disappointing, but strangely satisfying; what must be done, must be done.

November 4, 2020
Anxiously refreshing both the CNN a NY Times homepages frequently throughout the day. At a loss for for motivation, I did pushups in 9th period after a student gave a thoughtful response to question.

November 9, 2020
The beautiful weather enticed me to teach three of my classes from a bench near my apartment building; having leaves fall on my face as we discussed the unit circle was refreshing, but wiping bird poop off my keyboard was not.

November 10, 2020
After a student said “Happy 50th Birthday” to me, I ran into his room (which was across the hall) to give him a playful piece of my mind; you deserved it A! Ninth period absolutely made my day when they sang happy birthday to me.

November 18, 2020
I somberly learned today that, because the city’s 7-day infection rate rose above 3%, the schools were closing. I get why, but I can’t deny how disheartening and demoralizing it is to be ripped from the comforting walls of my classroom yet again — even when there are no students present.

November 24, 2020
Another roller coaster. I barely taught in eighth period today before realizing that they needed a mental health day; I wish I had the answers they needed.

December 1, 2020
I shaved my head in 5th period. That was random and fun.

December 9, 2020
I added five new call-and-response, virtual handshakes to my collection; one was connected to the first snow of the year. My 5th period class and I created an impromptu masterpiece.

December 21, 2020
My crusade for student engagement resulted in many minutes of silence today in both 1st and 9th periods. I get frustrated as hell, but, right now, who can blame them for wanting to hide in the shadows of vulnerability and learning?

January 5, 2021
In a random act of engagement, I had first period vote for the shirt that I was going to wear for the entire day; they chose a denim button-up.

January 6, 2021
Feeling defeated and isolated, I still find myself leaving my camera off during certain staff meetings. Played an uplifting game of Ultimate Tic-Tac-Toe with two students during office hours.

January 12, 2021
A rough day; students weren’t learning, I struggled to teach, nothing worked. By the end of it, I found myself questioning so much of what means to be a teacher.

January 26, 2021
In helping a student with makeup work, I realized how uncomfortable it made me to ask him to complete missing assignments…given that I knew next to nothing about him. I told him this and asked him to tell me something meaningful about himself; he told me he liked soccer.

February 5, 2021
Reflecting on my week, I held back tears in the afternoon as I wrote several of my students emails expressing gratitude for their hard work, willingness to participate, and the connections we’ve created during remote learning this year. Having finally made time to do this, it was extremely cathartic; when some of the students replied with kind sentiments of their own, I felt the tremendous weight of the year land on my shoulders and couldn’t but get emotional.

February 11, 2021
In ninth period, it made me happy to drop two close friends in the same breakout so they could talk to one another; given how foreign my students have been to me this year, the fact that I knew they were close friends and was able to act on it was an unusual feeling that I appreciated so much.

February 25, 2021
For Black History Month, I had my students research a Black mathematician of their choosing and write a short profile of them. Today, after one of my students emailed their mathematician to see if she would be a guest speaker in our class, one of these mathematicians (Dr. Lauren L. Thomas) visited my fifth period class and shared her story with us.

March 10, 2021
Found myself slowing down several times in my classes to express deliberate amounts of patience; my students weren’t readily offering up responses, but I tried to remain empathetic. In the past, I would have done this in a way that was passive aggressive, but today I was more understanding — I genuinely waited for them to be ready to engage.

March 15, 2021
Our collective struggle was on full display in our grade team meeting after school; an extended moment of silence swept over the group as we contemplated next steps in helping our most struggling students.

March 18, 2021
Today was the first day back in the building since late November; getting ready in the morning triggered some “first day of school” vibes; seeing colleagues in the flesh filled me with a renewed sense of hope and positivity.

March 22, 2021
Today was the first day back at school with students present. Out of nowhere, access to a whiteboard and dry erase markers launched me into a dizzying state of excitement while introducing my students to complex numbers; at the end of one of my classes, a student remarked sarcastically, “Mister, this was one of the best lessons ever!”

March 24, 2021
Because of in-person scheduling headaches and space constraints, I’m now teaching my ninth period class in the gym. Today, after HR (who hasn’t given one answer over the mic all year) voiced several correct responses in a row, I ecstatically grabbed a basketball from the utility closet and made a layup at nearby basket in her honor (not going to front: I was so happy that it took me two attempts).

April 7, 2021
Had a pre-observation meeting with my colleague whose doing the case study on me for her grad class. I admitted to her that I’ve felt a bit exposed and insecure from all the attention she’s given me these last few weeks; my thoughtless, mediocre teaching has been on full display to someone that I deeply respect.

April 14, 2021
I held back tears in conversation with a colleague about the end of the school year; I realized that I’m concealing a lot of dismay that will probably come back to bite me in June.

April 16, 2021
Had a thought-provoking conversation with two colleagues and a student about The Glass Castle this afternoon…interestingly, the student informally enticed all of us teachers to read it individually (both last year and this year) and then got us all together to chat about it for 45 minutes; it was an incredibly unique way of connecting during these crazy times.

April 19, 2021
Thoroughly enjoyed my lunch banter with some students in the courtyard (SHEESHHH!). My morning walks with BD are routine and therapeutic; I see them as an investment in self-awareness and self-care.

April 22, 2021
Still feeling defeated by remote learning, I dragged myself through my classes, and my students sensed it. I’m coming to terms with what it means to have sustained this level of professional stress for this long; today was really hard, this week has been horrible.

April 26, 2021
Gave a public apology to my students at the beginning of class today. Owning up to my weaknesses when it comes to remote learning, I apologized for my sour, emotionally-absent attitude at the end of last week; I’m not sure how it was received, but it had to be done — they deserve better.

April 29, 2021
Thrilled when several students and I got to play basketball in the gym during lunch. It was a socially distant game of 500 with everyone wearing masks and surgical gloves, but I had the time of my life.

May 10, 2021
Out of no where, smack in the middle of 5th period, I picked up my laptop, sat next to one of my students in an adjacent room, and co-taught the class with him via Zoom.

May 17, 2021
In 8th period, we shared a cool moment of connection when a student, who is remote but was in school for one day, visited the smears I created in the hallway which represent our figurative children. It’s crazy to think about the levels I’ve gone to to engage my students this year.

May 19, 2021
Myself along with six other staff members went to visit the grave of Malcolm X after school at Ferncliff Cemetery.

May 27, 2021
Disappointed at the end of the day when I removed a few students who were non-responsive to my attempts to engage them. I was frustrated based on the lack of engagement from the previous class and didn’t lead with compassion.

June 1, 2021
The first day of the Math Olympics, an event that we’ll use to close the year which was co-designed by me and my cogen. To add an official feel to it, we held the opening ceremonies; we played the Olympic music, lit the Olympic torch, had a parade of participants, read-aloud some math writing from the year.

June 10, 2021
The last day of classes and an emotional day for me. For me, saying goodbye to my students — my comrades, my companions, my battlemates — is an act I take seriously that honors the space they’ve taken up in my life for the last 10 months; this year I found it liberating, but sad.

June 11, 2021
Today was the annual cutting of my beard. I fully expected to do it alone on Zoom, but, in a twist, two students walked in the classroom just as I was getting started and ended up doing it all.

June 15, 2021
This afternoon, with remote learning knowing that its days are numbered, it lashed out at me one last time; with the sun in my eyes, I smoothly dodged its noxious thrust and extended grace to a student in need — I consider it my watered-down version of a federal pardon.

June 25, 2021
Alone with the echo of an empty classroom, I packed up my crap for the summer and said farewell; what a year this was. Tried my best to consolidate my gear into a few regions of room 227 and clumsily posted “Belongs to Mr. Palacios – Please do Not Remove” signs on them.


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What I will miss about this school year

Yesterday was the last day of school. Thinking back on the last 10 months, I have a confession. Despite limping though most of the school year, I’m going to miss something about it. It took me a long time to realize this, but it sunk in one day while in conversation with my first period class back in May. It was an uneasy realization. It made me uncomfortable at first because I thought nothing about this stressful year was missable. I questioned my feelings. I didn’t want to believe them.

What will I miss? It’s definitely not remote learning. That experience was terrible. There’s no need to unleash my contempt on it now, for it has felt my wrath all year. Now is a time for letting go, a time for healing.

I will say this though. Remote learning was a war. It consisted of many battles fought by me and my students every day. Small battles like clicking a link, larger battles like turning in a project. These battles were waged at home, on the bus, at the park, in school, and wherever else we accessed Zoom. It wasn’t merely academic blood that was shed during these battles either. There was social and emotional blood too, blood that is far thicker than any curriculum or lesson or breakout room. Through these battles, through this loss of blood, we fought to learn and make meaning. We fought to understand and persevere. If I’m being real, we fought because we had to.

This warring wasn’t me vs. them. It was never me fighting with students to get them to turn in assignments or show up for class or turn on their camera. Some teachers have felt this way, but I never did. In my eyes, there was only one enemy: remote learning. We were all struggling against it. We were side-by-side in the trenches, fighting together. We all have scars that will leave us changed. No one was exempt from this. Our objectives may have been different based on our roles in the war, but we all had a shared goal of survival.

And that is what I’ll miss. It won’t be the war itself, but instead the companionship and sense of purpose that I shared with my students as we survived it. I’ll miss our collective struggle. I’ll miss our uncompromising laugher in the midst of fatigue, our fierce efforts in the face of hardship, our inexplicable togetherness during a year of academic isolation. I’ll miss being comrades with my students during this once-in-a-lifetime event. When my teaching career is over, it is this subset of students who will hold a special place in my heart. I may not know what they look like, but I will remember them and what we did this year.

Together, we made something out of nothing. Our shared struggle was a light in a year of so much darkness. I’ll miss it.



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