By PHILIP BROWN
In a previous article, linked here, we discussed the service component of compassion. Compassion is defined as recognizing the need of another and taking action to serve that need. We unpacked what it means to serve students and the dangers of conflating whose needs are served by classroom management procedures and other interactions between teachers and stakeholders.
The big idea is this. If we serve the need of another, we must ensure that our own needs and desires aren’t conflated with the needs of the individual. For example, does a parent ever spoil a child because they want a spoiled child? Or, does the parent indulge the child’s desires because the child’s happiness makes the parent happy? Conversely, does the child’s stress and discontent evoke unbearable discontent within the parent? To serve another is to serve their needs in deference to serving our own needs and desires. Sometimes doing the best thing is the hardest thing to do! This is very true in the realm of serving the needs of someone you care about.
In this article, we will unpack what is meant by the need of a student.
To teach compassionately is to recognize the need of a student and take action to serve that need. There are physical needs that must be met first, but let’s put those aside for this discussion. However, the approach here is not to dismiss or suggest that should one of those needs arise in a student that the need be ignored. Let’s assume students are fed, loved, and safe. Education won’t happen if those issues are not in place.
A student’s need is a deep intrinsic desire to become their Ideal Self. The Ideal Self is the best version of an individual that one could dare to imagine. It’s not defined by career or economic status, nor is defined by their GPA or class ranking. The Ideal Self is the vision of the character of a person. The Ideal Self is who a person wishes to become, not what they wish to become.
“A student’s need is a deep intrinsic desire to become their Ideal Self. The Ideal Self is the best version of an individual that one could imagine.”
This might sound like a lofty ideal. After all, if the teacher is ultimately responsible to make sure that the passing rate of their students is at least as good as the state average on standardized tests, where does this Ideal Self nonsense fit in? It’s certainly not on any administrator’s evaluation rubric!
Our job is NOT to keep administrators happy or to make a school look good. If we do our job, the administration will be happy and a school will look good, but those aren’t the goal. The job of a teacher is to educate their students. While test scores are a marker of education, good test scores are not the outcome of education. The reason we educate children is that education develops the mind. An educated person should understand themselves better than a non-educated person. An educated person should be adaptive, innovative, curious, and act with confidence born from surviving adversity. Our job as teachers is to provide students access to experiences where they can earn an education.
When a student has a vision of their Ideal Self and can connect the role education plays in moving towards the embodiment of their vision, the teacher will witness buy-in on a level likely never before seen. The need a student has in an educational setting is to move towards becoming their Ideal Self. Education is about personal development. If personal development isn’t along the path leading to the student’s Ideal Self, what good is it? Further, if a teacher fails to help students move towards their Ideal Self, what good is that teacher to the student?
Without a doubt, many teachers help students work towards becoming their Ideal Self without ever having heard the term. It is also certain that teachers that intentionally focus on such notions can improve. Let’s unpack a few practical ways of creating an avenue by which teachers can serve the needs of their students.
The first element that must be in place is that students must have an image of their Ideal Self. Students must imagine the type of person they want to be. Do they want to be afraid to speak their dreams out loud, for fear of ridicule? Most big dreams will indeed end in failure. Do they want to be the type that avoids failure at all costs because the weight of embarrassment would crush their delicate natures? Do they want to be the person that will be a positive influence on their friends? What about reliability? Is it noble to aspire to be the person in the family all can rely on when things are hard? If not that, then what remains? Do they want to be the type of person who flies into a rage because someone beat them to the shortest line at the checkout counter? Do they want to be the kind of person that has a successful business and a disaster of a family life with kids falling into substance abuse and toxic relationships?
It is often the case that teens are attracted to bad role models. It’s not just teens. How many movies have you seen where you are interested in the villain?
Perhaps this provides an insight into Nietzsche’s discussion regarding how people confuse morality with cowardice. That means that most people act morally because it is socially expected, not because they are morally principled. In times of turmoil and social instability, this is how regular, “good,” people get swept up in very hateful and harmful behavior. It takes a strong person to stand up and live life on their terms. In many cases, these types of people are not good at all, just selfish and petty, perhaps sociopathic. Yet, to live by a creed that casts off the social pressures of conformity is highly attractive, especially to teenagers. But, to thrive in life, one must have a principled orientation that guides them, something more than social pressures of conformity or the attraction of selfish, hedonistic desires. This moral compass can be the student’s vision of their Ideal Self.
There are many ways to help students articulate their vision of their Ideal Self. In educational institutions, we often try to explore this concept but conflate the Ideal Self with career goals.
What do you want to do when you grow up? What school would you like to attend? These are meaningless questions. It is not what someone does that makes them thrive, or not. How someone carries themselves through life, which is a reflection of who they are, is the key to thriving in life, not just surviving.
Just as serving the needs of a student can be conflated with serving the desires of the individual teacher, we can flip the conversations about career aspirations on their head. This can be done passively or with full disclosure.
Either way, you facilitate the exploration, the question students must be able to answer is, “Who do you want to be and how can education help you become that person?”
The first part of that question involves who, which is the Ideal Self. The second part defines what role education plays in promoting the development of the individual towards their Ideal Self, which is the second half of how teachers can serve the needs of students.
School is an analog experiment for adult life. There’s no mystery in failure. It is easy to fail a class, get fired from a job, have a car repossessed, get your phone taken away, become a drug addict, ditch a class to smoke pot in the bathroom, get fat and out of shape, barely pass English class with a D, gossip about your very own friends behind their back, be surly and uncooperative with a teacher you dislike, allow narcissism to blind you from paths towards happiness, blame the education system for your failures … and so on.
Failure is easy. You just don’t do much and blame everything and everybody else. Success is hard because one must adjust for their shortcomings as well as compensate for events that conspire against them.
When am I going to use this in my real life?
This is your real life!
Considered with a wide lens, school provides students with the opportunity to develop the habits and attitudes possessed by their Ideal Self. Failure to make progress in that direction is progress in the opposite direction, towards a non-ideal self. Teachers must articulate how school is an analog for “real life,” and align common approaches and outcomes in school with characteristics that align, or not, with the Ideal Self. These life lessons must be understood by all and repeated in frequency tempered with variation so the message falls just shy of a mantra.
As we narrow our focus, we can address the particular conflicts and challenges of school. These small things also need to be aligned with helping students become their Ideal Selves. Why should a kid be on time? Why is tardiness counter-productive towards this idealistic metamorphosis? Why should a student study or participate in class? Why should they take good notes? Why shouldn’t they cheat on a test? Why should they try their best and keep their phones put away during class?
If the answer is so they can pass the class, or pass the test, all but the compliant will be lost. The compliant aren’t virtuous or moral nor will they become educated through compliance. They’re allowing social expectation to guide their actions and behaviors. Submitting to such guidance is not always bad. It is often necessary to get along in life. But, focus and intent above the constraints of social expectation are required if a person is working towards becoming their Ideal Self.
To serve the needs of students we must first help students envision their Ideal Self. Then, we must show them how working towards an education aligns with their vision of their Ideal Self. That means we must first ensure all of our rules, procedures, and expectations are aligned in such a fashion. Then, we must teach students how those rules, procedures, and expectations are aligned with what they want from, and for, themselves.
Compassion is to recognize the need of another and to take action to serve that need. To teach compassionately we must recognize the student’s need and help students to recognize their own need. By raising awareness within the student of their own need we are taking the first step towards serving the student’s needs. Then, by articulating how the educational process keeps the student on the path towards becoming the embodiment of their Ideal Self, teachers are fulfilling the services required to serve the student’s need. By serving the needs of students we facilitate their personal development towards their Ideal Self.