Compassion Is Our Standard

Compassion is not weakness. 

Compassion is not lowering standards. 

Compassion is not about giving kids passes without giving consequences. 

Compassion is not some desperate attempt by teachers to become popular with the students. 

There are still relics in our profession who see their rules, their numbers, their order; they cling to what they perceived to be good teaching two decades ago. But, they are even wrong about that: it wasn’t good teaching 20 years ago. Compassion was always the number one ingredient to good teaching. They were wrong then; they are most certainly wrong now. 

Compassion IS our standard.

Compassion IS our strength.

Compassion IS how we get students to reach and surpass every standard that is put in front of them. 

Compassion IS how we teach kids lessons when mistakes or lapses in judgement are made. It allows us to send them back out there for redemption, rather than hold their mistake over their heads or having them permanently wear a scarlet letter. 

Compassion IS how we form genuine relationships that allow us to not only help with skill development, but to make a lifelong impact. 

There are more of us than there are of the relics. We understand that there are rules, grades, and a need for order. But, we understand that they are all in place so that we can turn out better prepared young people who not only thrive in school, but can thrive in any situation. 

Compassion is the only way a teacher can effectively teach. A teacher who ignores their students’ well being or refuses to give other opportunities for redemption won’t even be appreciated by their students for their fine content knowledge. Instead, students will be drowning in work, not sleeping, stressed, and in survival mode rather than learning mode. That survival mode not only leads to less learning, but it can lead to students making poor choices.

And, if they happen to make a behavioral blunder or make a wrong choice, how will they ever learn if they don’t get another opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned? How can they face a similar situation if they are never allowed to move on? The relics want kids who make poor choices to pay: to never be allowed to move on. The relics want those kids to never be recognized for good things, to be excluded from teams, clubs, Honor Societies, to fail and to receive only consequences. 

Let’s be clear–consequences are necessary. If a student makes a mistake, a error in judgment, or does something against the code of conduct, they should receive a consequence.

But, that can’t be the end.

One mistake cannot and should not define a student’s life while in the education system. After the consequence, we, the educators, must guide students and show them how to make better choices, what to do when they need help, and to not act in desperation just to chase a grade. After we teach them, we give them another chance. We give them a chance to show growth, to show improvement, and to show that they can overcome any obstacle, even self-made ones. We can never give up on them. 

School is the place for kids to learn these skills. These life skills are what is needed when we want them to learn our content skills. Our content skills are difficult. We are asking kids to learn more, produce more, and think more. Without showing them that they will sometimes fail or they will sometimes stumble and that those are the points when our best learning is done, we are setting them up for life failure. We are not fostering the “grit” that the relics keep saying they don’t have.

In reality, that is what the relics are doing. One mistake can cost a teenager everything. If it does, how does a young person ever learn to stick with it and do better?  We cannot allow that. We must be louder than those “set in stone”, “I know better than everyone who thinks differently” people who still are in our profession. 

Fortunately, there are more of us than them. I am fortunate enough to work with great, compassionate educators every single day. One colleague teaches our college level English course to our seniors. Obviously, the standards are high; high school students are taking a college course. This year, our teacher is seeing some students who are still gaining command of the English language. They are hard working students and have a drive like no other.

But, when it comes to being graded on a rubric for written work with research, it is difficult. Yet, this teacher meets with them individually. They work the process. The students are learning and improving. When a few attempted to copy and paste some information into their research paper out of desperation, this teacher didn’t run and fill out a referral for plagiarism. She didn’t give them a zero and tell them that they are cheaters. She didn’t brand them for life because of a desperate move made out of insecurity. Instead, she sat with each one. She showed them why it was wrong. She showed them how to avoid it. She warned them to not do it again. And, then she made them write the paper again. 

That’s the grit everyone speaks of. That’s working so hard to meet a learning standard. 

Isn’t that what the purpose of education is? Isn’t it to help develop skills—in this case research and writing skills—and allow students a process to develop those skills? The teacher could’ve been a relic and simply failed the students and ruin their chances of graduating. Instead, she showed compassion and taught more. Compassion isn’t easy because it requires more work, more time, and more investment in kids. But, compassion shows a kid that mastering this skill is worth far more than just some number in a grade book.

That teacher isn’t being soft or worried about popularity. She is making kids work; she is allowing for mistakes while kids still have the opportunity to make them and learn. She is allowing them to demonstrate growth. She has handled it perfectly. She is equipping them with skills to bring into the real world by making them continue to work. Those academic skills will develop, rather than languish in a zero in a grade book. And, the life skill of never quitting is, most importantly, being developed and valued. 

Another colleague—she teaches eighth grade English—had a situation earlier this year when her class was working through personal narratives. One student came up and asked her if she could write about the same topic she wrote in seventh grade. Now, a relic would’ve answered with a resounding no. A relic would’ve said it was cheating and that there was nothing that could be learned. The relic would be wrong.

My colleague, someone who has taught for over 20 years, had a far different approach. She had her student bring in their work from last year, work through it with the advanced techniques learned in eighth grade, and do something completely different with the same story. The result was a piece of writing worthy of being shared with the world. It was a story of courage and passion. It allowed this student to write about a significant, life altering event in a way that allowed for growth, both skills and personal. This student was working so hard that the teacher was receiving emails from the student, looking for feedback on a Friday night. Had the teacher not acted out compassion and allowed for this, this student would’ve produced something less meaningful and wouldn’t have put so much effort into learning and working through the writing process. 

 There are so many more examples. There are great people in the profession and we need to be louder about just how great these compassionate, excellent educators are. We must set the tone that it is equally as important to think about kids’ well being as it is to teach our content. We must believe that and practice that because kids will learn more when they are confident that the person in front of the room cares about them, not only the results on some test that will ultimately have zero meaning in their adult lives. If we value students, teach out of compassion, students will learn; those tests will take care of themselves. 

Four Simple Ways To Show Compassion And Advance Learning

Ask 

It seems so basic, but the most overlooked voice in education is the student. It is easy to become myopic as a teacher and believe that your class is the single most important thing in a student’s life. Problem is, a high school student has six other classes. A middle school student has about the same. Even an elementary student has other responsibilities and classes as many are involved in religious education or some sort of activity. Our work is not the only thing in kids’ lives. It’s not even the only school work. 

I teach a course that is all about deadlines. It is flexible in that students can create their own process to get to a deadline, but a deadline is supposed to be a deadline. When making those deadlines, I will ask students about what they have going on. When is their math test? When is their big lab due? When is the infamous outline due? Who has a community service event, a big game or meet? Who has something big going on? While I can’t please everyone, we can generally find a good time to make our own time where the deadline doesn’t conflict so much that it will force a teenager to lose sleep. 

The relics will call that being soft. They, as usual, are wrong. By asking kids what they have going on, I am getting the best of them. We are learning how to plan for the long term, set goals, set work habits, be invested in our work, and meeting deadlines. Could I be like a relic and just set my own dates that work well with my schedule? Sure. But, I will not be getting the best out kids. 

Allow For Second (Third and More) Chances

Our purpose is to teach. Our mandate is that we get kids to meet or exceed standards. If students don’t grasp something the first time or don’t perform well the first time, do we fail them and move on? If we do, we are reducing learning to a number and one, singular performance. 

I do everything possible to eliminate the number culture in class. Yes, grades are important to students because they feel compelled to play in the outdated college process system. That isn’t going to go away any time soon. I’d be foolish to just ignore that. 

Instead, I take away the pressure of the grade. All writing assignments can be rewritten until they receive a 100 percent. That does a few things. First, it allows them to become authentic writers, putting the process of writing front and center. It allows them to take chances and experiment with their writing. That way, they can continue to refine their voice, rather than hand in some vanilla piece of writing. And, it allows for failure, great conversations about how to improve, and another try at it. Then, that process is repeating.

Currently, my group is in that process of revising their own research papers. While we held individual conferences, informally, while they were writing, many of the first drafts didn’t score well on the rubric. But, that led to individual conferences, some mini lessons, and students going back to work, rather than moving on. This past week, more drafts came in; there was great improvement. Their work paid off and their grades were changed. Because they are allowed more chances, they are better researchers, better writers, and better students because the focus is on learning and applying the process rather than chasing the number. 

This can be done in every subject area. I work with some wonderful math teachers who allow redos on tests. Science teachers do the same thing with labs. There can be more. There should be more.

Giving kids more opportunities isn’t about making it easy. In fact, it is the opposite. We are making them do more work. We are saying that what we are trying to teach them is so important that they need to keep coming back to it. Compassion drives learning if we allow it. 

Destroy The Scarlet Letter

Students can make poor choices. That’s not just limited to students. Some will cut a class. Some will copy a homework. Some will cheat on a test. All of these things deserve a consequence. But, none of these things deserve a lifetime branding. 

Earlier this year, my 10 year old daughter was brought into the Principal’s office to be questioned about an incident on the playground. She wasn’t involved, but she was around it. She was afraid she was in trouble and that the school would think differently of her. But, her Principal said something profound.

“Even if you did do this, it wouldn’t change how I see you and who you are as a person. One action doesn’t define you.”

Now, why can’t that be said to every student? Yes, you may have made a poor choice to copy answers; you will receive a consequence, but that does not change who you are. You will get a chance to redeem yourself. Your lapse in judgement may cost you something now, but there will be another opportunity to redeem yourself. 

We can be the educator who allows kids to learn from mistakes, prove that they learned, and go on to do something extraordinary. We don’t have to be the desperate one, clinging on to every single syllable of a rule book and casting judgement on teenagers. I don’t know about those people, but I made a ton of mistakes as a teenager; I am so glad I was able to redeem myself from many of them. Imagine if I wasn’t allowed to be part of a team or be in a society or organization because of one mistake during one moment in time. Thankfully, I had teachers who helped me learn from my mistakes and allowed me opportunities to test what I have learned. I want to do the same for kids so I will fight for second chances; I will fight for kids to not have a label because of one action during one moment in time.

We can give consequences, but those consequences become meaningless without teaching and without another opportunity to show that they learned and will do better. 

Keep Your Door Open

It’s simple; talk to kids. It doesn’t always have to be heavy conversations, but allow students to come talk with you during free time. Take the five or ten minutes and catch up with them, hear their stories, laugh with them, or let them cry to you. Yes, it is easier to lock yourself in the Teacher’s room and not have to deal, but kids know who is there for them and who isn’t. Be someone who they know they can count on. Be someone who they know cares about them and not their scores. 

It doesn’t mean that you can’t take some time for yourself; that is important sometimes as well. But, when you take time to hear a kid outside of class, that time is invaluable. You develop a relationship with a kid. You can help guide them better. And, more importantly, you can make a difference in a life. When a kid knows that you are all in, they will be all in during your class, which allows you to help them meet the standards. 

Final Thought

The relics are the weak ones. They are the ineffective ones. They are the ones who advocate against kids, pushing for permanent consequences, rather than teaching lessons. They are the ones making no impact. They are the ones who kids know only care about themselves, their paychecks, and being important. 

The rest of us can be called soft, but we are the ones making a difference. We are the ones teaching. We are the ones pushing kids to the standards and authentically learning rather than complying for a number. We are the ones teaching kids to learn from mistakes. We are the ones who give them more opportunities. We are the ones with our doors open, ready to welcome them in to talk. We are the ones who care enough to make them work harder by us working harder. 

There’s a lot of us. The relics will one day disappear from the field with only stories of how they took a stand for order, compliance, and stagnation. I’ll gladly stay and one day have stories about how I saw kids learn from being given more opportunities and how that made them better equipped to take on the real world. 

I am joined by many.

Compassion is our standard. 

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