Compassionate Teaching: “a hug and a little bit of extra attention”

As I examined a week ago, while many people anticipate Santa Claus, family reunions, and peace on earth during the Christmas/New Year’s season, I await the inevitable worrying, anxiety, and stress. And there is nothing rational about either the anticipation or the days and even weeks struggling against the weight of all that anxiety.

Firmly underneath that this year (tempered briefly when I sit quietly with my granddaughter sleeping on my chest), I was immediately drawn to two moments on social media.

First (either on Twitter or Facebook), I saw this quote attributed to Gandhi:

There is nothing that wastes the body like worry, and one who has any faith in God should be ashamed to worry about anything whatsoever.

And then, this headline at Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet: Mom: How I know my anxious daughter’s kindergarten teacher is great.

What I would call normal (for lack of a better word) worrying and anxiety can be exhausting—even if it is rational and based in healthy responses to the world.

But irrational and relentless worrying and anxiety are characterized by the fear of the unknown, the uncontrollable, and (I think, worst of all) highly negative “what if” thinking.

As an adult and life-long sufferer of anxiety, I can attest that these psychological experiences are physically taxing, nearly debilitating even though many of us have learned how to mask for others (in 1999, my family physician could not diagnose my panic attacks because he said I always seemed so relaxed) and how to function in self-denial (we fear admitting our own human frailties, I think, because we anxious are also perfectionists).

As I read Jane Dimyan-Ehrenfeld’s celebration of her anxious daughter’s kindergarten teacher, I started seeing more clearly how my discomfort with our field of education grows directly out of my own lived experiences with anxiety.

“As you can imagine, I too love my daughter’s teacher, Mrs. Brooks,” Dimyan-Ehrenfeld explains, adding:

Although she is an anxious kid, she loves school, not only because in her classroom learning goes hand in hand with joy and inquiry and creative exploration, but also because she adores Mrs. Brooks, who knows how to solve my daughter’s nervous stomachaches with a hug and a little bit of extra attention, who understands and honors her strengths, and who makes her laugh and teaches her funny sayings like, “Wake up and smell the cappuccino!” My daughter has watched Mrs. Brooks and learned kindness and compassion, becoming an important friend to a student with severe developmental disabilities in the classroom, no doubt in large part because she saw how much Mrs. Brooks. adored this little boy (Mrs. Brooks cried when he left for another school, and threw him a beautiful party on his last day). Where other teachers might have been relieved to lose a high-needs student from their rooms, Mrs. Brooks mourned the loss of a sweet kid, and my daughter watched this and learned.

Dimyan-Ehrenfeld’s point focuses on the current failure of addressing teacher quality by emphasizing measurable teacher impact on student test scores. And here, I agree, but I think the issue is even larger than that.

Education has historically trained teachers under some dictums I have always rejected: don’t be friends with your students, don’t touch students, and start the year as a strict disciplinarian (you can always ease off a bit later).

So I think Dimyan-Ehrenfeld’s essay about her daughter’s kind and compassionate teacher is a charge against historical and current failures about what it means to be an effective teacher.

In part, it makes sense that education and schooling focus mostly in the cognitive domain; of course, that is what learning is, I suppose.

But we fail education and our students if we ignore that teaching and learning exist in the emotional realities of being a human.

In my high anxiety phases, I am much less capable of attending to myself, but I also must retract from the needs of others (anxiety drains our ability to be the compassionate people we wish to be, and need from others)—even if that is nearly imperceptible to others.

And worrying/anxiety share a quality with poverty (as examined in Scarcity) that must be central to our work as teachers: No one—especially children, teens, and young adults—can take a vacation from anxiety, stress, or poverty because they are pervasive states beyond the control of many people.

“Don’t worry” or “relax” serves about the same purpose as “stop being poor” by placing all the emphasis (and possibly blame) on the person who is actually under the control of the anxiety/poverty but not necessarily capable of overcoming those forces alone or under that weight due to personal failure or weakness.

All humans—especially children and the young—need the empathy of others, a community of support grounded in having the awareness of what others may be experiencing if it is beyond your own experiences.

For me, part of the urge to mask grows from how exhausting it is to explain irrational anxiety to someone with no context for understanding what I struggle against. There’s a certain peace among we anxious commiserating, but those who have no experience with “what if” worrying must have empathy in order to grasp something beyond their world.

Thus, when Dimyan-Ehrenfeld emphasizes “kindness and compassion,” I was compelled by her “I too love my daughter’s teacher” to consider more deeply just why I have set out to confront corporal punishment, grade retention, and “no excuses”/deficit ideologies related to children and students: they all breed stress and anxiety unnecessarily in children/students.

Public schooling has a long history of creating stress and anxiety in the education and lives of children; over the past thirty years, that historical reality has been amplified under the guise of rigor, standards, and “no excuses”—all of which erase any hope for kindness and compassion unless each teacher her/himself is willing to risk either.

Teaching the whole child is often trivialized, and mostly marginalized—even mocked. But the great paradox of honoring the cognitive growth of children and students is that we must create lives and classrooms filled with kindness and compassion first before those cognitive goals can matter.

Recess, friendships, laughing, reading by choice, art, band, chorus, clubs, athletics—these are the moments of formal schooling that remain with children and teachers because they are filled with emotional and interpersonal meaning.

Of course, we want our students to learn and our children and youth to grow, but those aspirations are not purely cognitive and not measurable in any valid ways.

Teachers who love their students in word and deed, students who love their teachers in word and deed—these are the foundational conditions of high quality teaching and excellent student achievement.

If we start with kindness, compassion, empathy, and love, and if we remain always true to those ideals, we have a much better chance to achieve the so-called high expectations many champion while creating heartless and soulless schools that impose stress and anxiety on children that erode their capacities for learning and growing.

This is the ultimate immeasurable of being a teacher, the humanity of “a hug and a little bit of extra attention.”

6 comments

  1. Joan Kramer

    Thank you for being so clear about what bothers those of us suffering from anxiety. And thank you for making that link to our students who need the kindness and affection of a teacher who truly wants to teach, wants to be around children. I know I was able to survive because I had compassion from two teachers in middle school who saw me as a decent person with much anxiety (and poverty). In high school that rarely happened – once maybe — and consequently I hated high school. I had been a top student in elementary school, but by high school I began to fall. I probably never would have attained the higher education I did if it had been as difficult as it is today.

  2. Yetta Goodman

    Paul’s post is so much more than “a hug and a little bit more.” It’s an important place to start. The more I work with readers who have not been served well by schools, whether young readers or adults who have had years of “intervention” (how I don’t like that word), the more I am convinced that our emotions are part and parcel of our learning. And feeling “bad” (is that anxious?) about self is a major factor in reading devleopment. It even has influences on readers with high test scores who come to believe they are not good readers because of unexamined instruction. Learning to read (to write, to talk, to communicate) should be barrier free. My good friend Brian Cambourne (great Australian teacher educator) said that.

  3. VAS Reading Echo

    This is about placing children first and putting the vital humanity back into the classrooms. Bless all the empathetic ‘Mrs Brooks’ by other names out there, who are happily creating a love for learning.

  4. sharon kinsey

    I loved this post for two reasons. First, it clearly identifies the human condition: anxiety – some of us take it to extremes however🙂 As for our children – it hurts my heart to see the kinds of things these kids are carrying around with them today – unemployed parent(s), parent in jail, alcohol and drug abuse in the home, physical abuse, neglect, and of course all of the wonderful stuff that comes with poverty. One of our students (I am a student teacher) came to class one day and said to my mentor teacher, “Mrs. A, it’s a bad day today – my mom lost her job a while ago and they just turned off our electricity – we had to leave.” Yet this boy was in school. What did he need more – a worksheet or a hug? Most of the teachers when they see a student standing in the hall crying – avoid him or her. They are like magnets for me. I have to get my arm around them and just “be in the moment” with them. It scares me that the “powers” are now turning their attention to grading teachers by the same insane methods they are using to grade students. “Effective” teachers cannot be measured in one year – their effectiveness shows up in subsequent years – sometimes not even until after a child turns into an adult.

    I am a huge proponent of bringing back the “humanity” of teaching. Cultivate the “Mrs. Brooks” types, cull the ones who have lost, or never had, a true love of the students they are responsible for.

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