Given the unexpected and, for many, worrying outcome of the United States election, the thoughts of many of those who work with young people will be turning to how we discuss the events with these young and curious minds. These discussions are just beginning, though.
For me as a teacher, I have always felt the need to make clear to my students that messages of intolerance and hate that can so often dominate news cycles are not how we have to live our lives. This is not a matter of being political, either on the left or right, with students. Intolerance can exist on any side of the political and social spectra. But rather, as teachers, I believe that we have a vital role in showing our students the value of living a life of compassion, now more than ever.
When thinking about the one value that you would wish that all of your students had when they leave school, it is often very challenging to identify a single option out of your list of priorities. As a science teacher, I could very easily get caught on deciding whether I think that problem solving or an understanding of design processes are more crucial, forgetting the arguably bigger and more important issues at play.
The idea of compassion, of empathy and understanding of other people and their lives, is vital if we are to develop students who become emotionally intelligent and caring adults. Compassion is often lost in the hustle and bustle of both the news cycle and the day-to-day of teaching. Yet it is almost impossible to argue against the idea that we are all, whether student, teacher or citizen, better when it is present. I also firmly believe that teachers have a responsibility to foster this trait in our students. Teachers spend a significant amount of time with young people during the period when many of their attitudes towards others are being made and reinforced.
I also firmly believe that teachers have a responsibility to foster this trait in our students. Teachers spend a significant amount of time with young people during the period when many of their attitudes towards others are being made and reinforced.
So how do we, as teachers and educators, develop compassion in our students? How do we help our students understand that we do not have to live with intolerance and hatred? There are two distinct, yet related and equally important ways that we can do this.
The first is something that comes naturally to teachers, even if they don’t think of doing it in this context. We can explicitly teach our students what compassion is and why it is has value. Individual teachers can take it upon themselves to give students an understanding of compassion and why it is important throughout our lives. Schools can provide more widespread support to both students and teachers through programs such as School-Wide Positive Behaviours. These programs are designed to explicitly teach students both the value of compassion and how they can behave in a way that embodies this. Teaching such as this can empower students to support and understand the lives of the people around them and of those in the wider society.
However, there is something even more powerful that teachers can do to show students the value of compassion. Teachers can live the principle in everything that they do in their work. They need to embody the idea that a life lived caring for others is a life that we all should strive for. Teachers need to show students that life is better for everyone when we show that we care, when we support those people who need it most. Teachers must show students that to show that you care or that you have emotions is not a sign of weakness. We need to show them it is a sign of strength. By looking at all of their actions through a lens of compassion, teachers can show their students the power of empathy to change the social context we all live in.
Teachers have the opportunity to be the ultimate role models for their students. We are motivated by a desire to help students become the best that they can be in their lives. We should also be motivated to help our students improve society, for themselves and for us. It is cliche to say that students are our future, yet it is fundamentally true. If we want to fight hatred, we must embody the antithesis of those who would seek to teach our students that fear and intolerance are reasonable and acceptable ways to live their lives.