Philip Brown

Philip Brown

Who's Being Served

Teaching with Compassion Series
Part 1

If you are anything like a lot of hardened teachers then the title, “Teaching with Compassion,” might not sit well with you.  It might sound squishy, or touchy-feely.  Teaching with compassion is anything but squishy or touchy-feely.  In this series, we will explore the meaning of compassion and what it has to do with teaching.

You will find that some of the requirements to teach compassionately are deeply challenging, both personally and professionally.  That is especially true for the topic of this article.  If you can turn the questions discussed in this article on yourself and answer without ego, you will be challenged to grow as a teacher.  Since no perfect teachers exist, this is a great exploration for any teacher interested in improving.

The approach this article takes at helping teachers improve is similar to digging for gold.  There will be a lot of dirt uncovered.  If we focus on the dirt, we’ll never get anywhere.  This is not an accusation audit or a list of things to be fixed.  This is a search for what’s best in each of us.  But, to do so, we have to sift through a lot of material to determine what’s good, and what should be thrown out.  The trouble comes when one finds a particle in the sifted dirt that sparkles and shines.  Those can be hard to throw out because they look good.  But, upon inspection, we might find they’re just iron pyrite.  This work must be done on the individual level as the evaluation system and testing tools we use to validate our practices are beyond corruption.  Essentially, if you don’t cause trouble and can manage the classroom, you can completely fly under the radar while also being recognized as a highly effective teacher.  Students deserve better.    

To provide better, in this article we will unpack and explore the meaning of the following paragraph.  We will do so by exploring some “safe” examples where the dynamic is easily spotted because it’s not too close to home.  Then, we’ll start to shift that focus from outside to inside.  In the next article, we will discuss what to do about what we’ve uncovered.  But, for now, let’s dig into exploring who is being served by our best practices and techniques, and what outcomes of such service produce.

To optimize educational outcomes for the student, the academic needs of the student must be served by the teacher.  It is very easy for a teacher to conflate, or even confuse, their needs with the student’s needs.  When teachers take action to serve their own needs, especially when they believe they are serving the student, an unhealthy dynamic is created. Over time, this dynamic will breed animosity and resentment between the teacher and student, in both directions.  In such a relationship learning and teaching are nearly impossible.  In short, when teachers take action to make themselves feel better, they create conflict that is detrimental to the student’s growth.  This is exactly the opposite of what needs to happen in a classroom. While there are many reasons for animosity to exist between student and teacher, teachers can unknowingly create and foster such a relationship by serving their own needs instead of student needs.

Let’s start by looking at our least favorite type of parent.  The “helicopter parent,” or as I prefer to think of them, the “snowplow parent.”  These types of parents are always creating conflict with teachers, counselors, and administrators.  On the surface, it might appear that they’re trying to protect their child.  It is often the case that the parent blames everybody else and proclaims the child’s innocence.  There is nothing the child could do wrong, no measure of accountability to which they should be held, according to this type of parent.

It is often the case that the child manipulates the parent.  If they want to cause trouble for a teacher, they’ll make something up to get the parent involved.  If they like a teacher, they’ll often keep quiet.  If they’re in trouble for something, they’ll figure out a way to divert the parent’s attention away from the offending action and focus it on how the punishment was handled.

It is most certainly the case that the child does not respect that parent.  And, it is almost certainly true that the parent resents the child, too.  As a teacher, it will be hard to see this dynamic because the parent will be so aggressive in their “defense,” of the child.  But that resentment and animosity are there.

This description is a generalized example.  But, the behavior of the parent in moderation is becoming increasingly normal in American society today.  That is likely a contributing factor explaining why the age at which young adults become independent is increasing.  Many require financial support from their parents well into their 30s!   The point is that the problem we will highlight is becoming increasingly integrated into American society.  That means we all engage in it to some extent.  The question is, how does this happen?   It is highly unlikely that a parent of a newborn desires to become a tyrant to their child and on behalf of their child.

A suffering child creates pain and misery in the parent.  This is especially true of parents with their first child.  It hurts the parent when their child hurts.  Often that pain a parent suffers is worse than the actual pain or discomfort the child experiences.  This is natural, normal, and probably a great thing.  It keeps parents motivated to care for and protect their children.   However, too much of a good thing isn’t always good. 

The visceral response a parent has to a child that is physically harmed or in danger is undoubtedly instinctual. However, it is easy to have a similar reaction to a merely frustrated child.  This is where things go wrong.

Suppose a child is frustrated because they can’t figure out how to build something with LEGOs.  Let’s consider the parent does one of three things.  They can either ignore the struggling child, leaving them to figure it out or quit.  They can help the child with demonstration and encouragement (teaching the child).  Or, they can do the work for the child.  In only one of the last two cases was the suffering of the child addressed.  In the other case, the discomfort experienced by the parent in response to the suffering child was addressed.  If the motivation that distinguishes between the last two options doesn’t come to mind immediately, consider it carefully.  Why would a parent just put the toy together for the child? 

By doing the work for the child, the parent likely acted to serve their own needs, not the need of the child.

Part of growing up and developing is learning to deal with negative emotions, learning to deal with frustration, even learning to cope with discomfort and pain.  One of the biggest lessons to learn is the role of failure in ultimate success!  Failure hurts, of course.  If a parent’s bias is to soothe their suffering triggered by their child’s distress, the child will not develop at an appropriate pace. Over time, this can make the parent consistently resent their child because if the child doesn’t learn to navigate the challenges of childhood because the parent always sets things right, then as the problems grow in complexity and frequency, the burden on the parent increases exponentially.  In turn, as the child grows up, they will not respect the parent because the parent is ultimately selfish.  The child will be unlikely to articulate this at a young age, but they’ll know it to be true.

Here’s the take-away.  A parent can take action that superficially appears to be helping their child.  However, if the parent is taking action because it makes them feel better at the expense of serving the needs of the child, an unhealthy relationship is developing.  Over time this situation can grow and develop into what we see at the high school level with the classic helicopter parent.  Worse still, the child is not developing at an ideal pace.  They’re overly sheltered and ill-prepared for adulthood. 

As teachers, we can also serve our own needs to the exclusion of the student’s needs.  Our needs, in this context, could be anything that promotes making our jobs easier, making the class run more smoothly.  Those are not necessarily bad things, right?  Student needs, in this context, are referring to their needs that are met through education. 

The question is this:  Are there actions taken by you, the teacher, that serve your own needs at the expense of the needs of the student?  Do you just wish the student would stop misbehaving so you can get on with the lesson?  Do you wish they’d show up on time so you didn’t have to go back and adjust the attendance book?  Here’s the question that tests what we do in the classroom.

What is the motivation, and desired outcome, for a particular best practice or classroom management strategy?

Consider a student that failed to turn in a project.  The teacher calls home to tell the child’s parents that their child is now failing because of the missing project.  Calling home can be a method to exact a measure of revenge, to get the kid in trouble.  Even without that motivation in mind, if the call home isn’t designed to benefit the child, then it is counterproductive.  How can the teacher call home to serve the need of the child? 

If participation in the project has a meaningful outcome for the student, and the teacher calls home, or confronts the student directly, with the concern that the student has missed out on something important to them, the outcome is different.  The motivation to call was to help the student, not serve the desires or needs of the teacher.

Let’s examine a common classroom management issue in high school.  If the punishment for tardiness is primarily a deterrent, whose needs are being served?   Let’s consider two questions to explore this. 

  1. Why should students be on time to class, anyway?
  2. What need of theirs is being served by punctuality?

If the punishment does not answer these two questions in the mind of the student, something is missing.  The punishment may not serve the need of the teacher, but it certainly fails to serve the need of the student.

When disciplining students, their needs must be addressed.  Their need includes understanding the purpose of the discipline, how it aligns with their education. The disciplinary measure also needs to provide redirection. 

Each engagement should include: Here’s why I’m addressing this behavior, here’s what you should do instead.  If you do this thing instead, your actions will bring about an outcome you intrinsically desire.

Consider a student that’s on their phone during class.  If the teacher uses proximity to improve student behavior, the student’s need hasn’t been served.  They’ve simply been intimidated to stop the inappropriate behavior.  This unhealthy dynamic based on authority and forced compliance was exposed as ineffective in fantastic resolution during the school closures of 2020.  Quiet, compliant students sure make running class easier, and that looks great to an administrator, too.  The problem is, compliance doesn’t indicate learning.  A student must willfully engage in their educations for the educations to be meaningful.

Proximity itself is not a bad practice if it helps students understand why the behavior is inappropriate.  That involves communication, trust, and understanding.  Teachers must understand that students aren’t supposed to pass your class because it’s required for graduation.  That’s extrinsic motivation.  There needs to be something more that you can offer to students through the successful completion of the class. We have to explain these benefits to our students.

Here’s the rub:  We don’t just teach students our subject.  Helping them understand why rules and procedures are in place, how those practices promote serving the need of the student, is a huge part of what it is we teach students.  Just like the parent that taught their child to put LEGOs together so they could do so independently, we need to teach students the purpose of the rules so that they can self-govern to achieve desired outcomes autonomously.  When we do so, we have served their needs.  To fail in this endeavor is to fail to serve the needs of the students.

The old saying is true:  You can take a horse to water but cannot make him drink.  But isn’t it more effective to make the horse thirsty, then offer water?  By showing students that their needs are fulfilled through education and that you are serving their needs, not your own, a positive relationship with a common goal is established.  They’re thirsty, you have water!

Let’s examine one last issue: The student that flies under the radar.  We’ve all had the student who gets decent grades in class, is compliant and well behaved, not overly introverted or extroverted, and just generally goes unnoticed.  Are their needs being served by their teacher?

Their needs are undoubtedly going unserved.  The evidence is the fact that they’re overlooked and unnoticed.  To challenge the student to develop would require them to be noticed!  They’re not developing as a person.  They’re simply going by unscathed because they’re rule followers.  The purpose of education involves personal development.  It is important that this need, common to all students, is served by our actions as teachers.  As a teacher, it is very easy to confuse compliance with intelligence!  

Teaching is highly nuanced.  There are so many interrelated components and pieces that it is inappropriate to examine one piece in isolation and claim that if this is done correctly, everything will be sublime.  Serving the needs of a student is one component of teaching compassionately.  In this article, we explored how easy it is to serve our own needs as teachers, to the exclusion of the student needs.  However, we didn’t define the needs of the student, or how service of needs is integral to compassionate teaching.  Those issues will be discussed in the coming articles.

If you find merit in what’s been discussed regarding whose need is being served by teaching practices, and you’d like to improve your practices in response, consider doing the following.

  1. Find a trustworthy partner that will be honest with you, that you can bounce ideas off of, that will challenge you, and that will help you in the pursuit of improvement.

    With that person, discuss and explore the following question.

  2. Determine what is the policy or expectation at the heart of most conflicts you have with students. Is the policy or expectation itself designed to make your life easier, does it serve you at the expense of student needs?  Or, is how you structure your discipline and react towards failures of compliance fail to address the needs of students?
  3. Develop an experiment that will prioritize student needs (which might just include teaching them why the expectation is important). With your partner, reflect on the outcomes and establish a new habit in your classroom!

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