Hey, Teachers: It’s Time to Put On Our Compassion Hats

(co-authored with Monica Worline)


The surge in cases of Coronavirus around the world is disrupting the daily lives of students, teachers, and professors. So many of us are suffering, but often we feel helpless in the face of the overwhelming changes to our lives. The combination of anxiety and stress can easily cause panic and indifference. But our professional responsibility, as well as our humanity, means we cannot look away. So, teachers and professors, it’s time to put on our compassion hats. Rather than find ourselves helpless and hopeless in the face of the suffering of our students and colleagues, it’s time to do whatever we can to awaken compassion in our work.


What do we mean by compassion? The meditation teacher and Buddhist scholar Jack Kornfield wrote: “compassion is the heart’s response to suffering.” We’ve spent the past 25 years researching and writing about compassion, and in all those years we haven’t found a better way to express what we mean. But in a more formal manner, social science researchers define compassion as a 4-part human experience that involves: 1) noticing the pain and suffering around us; 2) interpreting that suffering as worthy of our attention and empathy; 3) feeling concern for the suffering of others; and 4) acting to address or alleviate suffering.


What we also know from years of research is that we will all be imperfect in our quest to be compassionate. Despite that imperfection, compassion matters. In fact, our research as well as that of many others, documents the important effects of compassion on alleviating pain for the people who are suffering, elevating the people offering compassion, and lifting up those who witness compassion in the world around them.


Noticing the suffering around us

For teachers and professors, noticing the suffering of students is something that often can’t be ignored. If you tune in at all to the humanity of the students in your courses, you can feel the suffering, even if students don’t express their pain. You feel it in the awkward silences on the videoconference technology as students try to adapt to new social relationships. You see it in their eyes and their slumped posture. You hear it echoing through the email messages that describe their life circumstances while they are requesting to be absent or explaining why they need more time on an assignment.


Noticing the suffering of students and responding with compassion isn’t necessarily a “part of the job” of teaching, but paradoxically it is an inevitable reality of the work of teaching. Students will bring their pain to class with them, as reliably as they will bring their curiosity or eagerness to learn. And as with their strengths and talents, each student‘s pain is unique, triggered by differences in their experiences, personalities, backgrounds, and the variety of conditions in their immediate contexts. Whether or not we choose to attune to that suffering is one of the most significant choices we can make about how we enact our roles. Whether or not we acknowledge suffering in our classes has everything to with whether or not our teaching opens up or closes down compassion.


Responding to suffering in the midst of a crisis

Right now, professors, teachers, and students alike are living through a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic in which the major institutions of daily life are grinding to a halt. Of course the scale of a crisis such as this engenders suffering. Take, for example, one of our students who was forced to leave her leased apartment near the university to go to home and care for a younger sibling. Without her the younger sibling would not have food or shelter. Yet her landlord would not release the student from her lease, leaving her with no discretionary funds. The pandemic and shutdown of universities placed both of these young people on the cusp of homelessness.


Students are grieving the fracturing of friendships caused by quickly having to leave their campuses. They are wondering what life will be like as they miss out on important ceremonies like proms and graduations. They have been yanked from participating in meaningful sporting events, school clubs, musical groups, and myriad more cultural rituals. None of these losses—nor the ensuing grief that accompanies them—are technically within the purview of the teacher’s role. And yet, for those of us who want to respond to the real life circumstances of the people who share our classrooms, all of these losses and the accompanying grief are what is most real now. As are feelings of stress, anger, disappointment, frustration, fear, and loneliness. How are we teachers to respond?


Four ways to try on your compassion hat

So how do we try on a “compassion hat” while also doing the work of teacher or professor? Here are four ways to incorporate compassion into our roles:


  1. Allow yourself to be psychologically present and truly listen. Research documents the healing power of being psychologically available to each other in times of suffering. Use whatever means you can to signal and communicate directly when you are accessible to students. Hold open office hours. Set up one-on-one appointments. Use virtual sharing forums. Invent ways to be with them and to hear them. Even if you cannot do anything else, this way of being will matter more than you realize.

  2. Be generous in your interpretations of their circumstances. In our book, Awakening Compassion at Work, we talk about the power of giving people the benefit of the doubt. Suffering is not convenient; it often gets in the way of our being able to do what we most hope or intend to do. When we understand another’s pain with generosity, it helps us to stay close, to minimize judgements, and to reduce the possibility that our actions will add additional pain. For instance, you might be worried that students will take advantage of you if you offer them understanding or compassion—that is an example of interpreting through fear, rather than through generosity. When we assume our students are good, capable, and doing the best they can, we are much more likely to see things in an empathetic way from their perspectives.

  3. Suspend judgment. Our brains form quick judgements from thin slices of other people’s actions. One of the most important things we can do as teachers is to resist the tendency to judge quickly. We can never know what a student is wrestling with as they face a whole life outside of our classes, most of which is invisible to us. It often takes work on our part to repress judgment, especially if we feel disappointed or let down by a students’ behavior or performance. Yet for compassion to flow, the effort to suspend judgement is crucial.

  4. Communicate care. Finally, among the many compassionate actions that are possible for teachers, the most important in times of crisis is to communicate that you care. We can do this through our words—for instance, weave care into your next Canvas post or email to the class. We can also do this through our actions—try weaving care into the next check-in you lead or the next discussion you facilitate. Sometimes we might worry that this doesn’t fit with a professional identity as a teacher, but we can relax into the knowledge that communicating care is deeply human. Indeed, our bodies and our brains are built for compassion. When we are called toward caring we are responding to a critical force for what it means to be a human teacher.


Crafting your role to awaken compassion

Incorporating compassion into the role of teacher or professor is one form of job crafting, which is defined as shaping the role to incorporate new meanings and new relationships as well as new tasks. Sometimes crafting our jobs in new ways is scary; that is part of what may make it feel as if we are outside our professional bounds when we encounter suffering. At other times, crafting our jobs in this way can be tremendously energizing. Overall, we know from many conversations, interviews, and surveys, as well as from our own experience as teachers and professors that both the fear and the thrill of awakening compassion in our work are real. In the long horizon of our careers, it is the possibility and potential of responding with care to the real human circumstance of those alongside us that is the most rewarding aspect of our work.


We hope you’ll share your adventures in awakening compassion with us. How are you incorporating compassion into your teaching now?

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