Teaching compassion to our students

How do we teach our students to be compassionate? I’m thinking about this idea this morning because of something that happened to me that I want to share.

I arrived in San Antonio last night as I am attending the ASCD 2010 conference.  I’m pretty stoked about this conference, it is great to have a chance to meet up with a bunch of educators from all over the world.  Although I am connected to teachers globally through Twitter, long conversations there tend to be sporadic and hard to follow.  To have a really in depth conversation with a few people, you really need to meet in person.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of #edchat, but sometimes it feel a lot like having a conversation in a gigantic room with everyone shouting, and when someone retweets someone else in the conversation, it feels like an echo.

My hotel is located right on the Riverwalk in San Antonio, which is fabulous, I highly recommend checking it out if you are ever in the area.  I went for a walk in the morning today to look for some breakfast.  After trying some searches on Yelp and Google maps, I settled on a nice Mexican restaurant and wandered over there, only to discover it was closed.  Grumbling, I looked around a bit and noticed that pretty much all of the good looking restaurants were closed.  Feeling extremely hungry at this stage, I settled for MacDonald’s.  Sigh.

As I stood in line, I noticed a man behind me was mumbling under his breath, looking at the menu, and fondling a well worn 1 dollar bill.  I glanced up at the menu, and could quickly tell that his $1 wasn’t going to buy very much, even at MacDonald’s.  I looked back at the man, and his clothing seemed like it was in okay shape, but he looked a little bit unclean, and his face looked like he was in distress.

I asked him if I could help, not specifying how I could help out of respect for his dignity, but thinking in my head that if I added $2 to his $1, he could have a meal.  He responded in a meekish voice, "Oh no, it’s okay, I’m just looking to see what I can get."  I felt bad, but having offered help and not wanting to push the issue, ordered my food.

As I waited for my food, the man slowly, and uncomfortably approached the cashier.  The cashier gave him a disapproving look and asked him in an abrupt voice, "Yeah. What do YOU want?"  The man with the $1 bill responded, almost shyly, "I’d like a lemonade please."  The cashier took the man’s dollar bill and a quarter that I hadn’t seen before and brought him a lemonade.  I felt embarrassed for the man, the cashier’s attitude was wholly unnecessary.

When I left the MacDonald’s the man was sitting on the steps looking lonely and discouraged.  I felt the same way, alone in this new city, and discouraged about human nature.

Our school systems are failing our children if they aren’t teaching the simple value of compassion.  It is so important that we respect everyone, especially people in need, while recognizing that may not want our help at that moment.  Why don’t more people see this? What can we do as educators to encourage our students to be compassionate.  I think most teachers are compassionate people, it kind of goes with the territory, but somehow this attribute isn’t always impressed upon our students.  I know that most schools are trying, all sorts of schools have community service built into their programs, but still we struggle to be a compassionate society, and I worry for our future

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One Comment

  • Blair Miller wrote:

    Heartily agree with you David. Had a similar experience when travelling in Indianapolis 10 years ago.

    My mother, who teaches Early Childhood Education, has been involved in helping coordinate ‘Roots of Empathy’ ( http://www.rootsofempathy.org/ ) in my hometown of Port Alberni. Roots of Empathy is a neat program that was started Mary Gordon, a Canadian educator. Unfortunately, the program is only aimed at elementary students and I feel like the shift away from compassion starts early on in high school. It seems to me that compassion becomes a socially undesirable trait. I feel part of it is the desire of adolescents to be independent and any sign of needing the care of others would take away from their statement of independence. In order to be compassionate, one also I think must be open to receiving compassion from others.

    I don’t know how we build more compassion into our schools. I challenge students who act in an uncompassionate manner and discuss the impacts of their behaviour with them, but individually it is difficult to do much, but model compassion. I would like to see schools have more connections to the community as I believe seeing the wide experiences of others on a regular basis makes it easier to appreciate that life doesn’t always go well.

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