Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Guiding Principles for Fostering and Developing the Compassionate Classroom and School

“When we wake up in the morning, the first thing we can do is to be aware of the gift that life is offering us. We have a gift of twenty-four hours.” Thich Nhat Hanh, Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day
Finding meaning in what we do as educators should be a given. Most of us became educators because we wanted to compassionately touch the lives of kids, and that motivation is tightly woven into everything we do. But as it is often the case in large, bureaucratic institutions, we lose sight of the core reasons why we became teachers. The winds of policy and anti-public education rhetoric blow strong, sometimes pushing our rationale and purposes for being educators out of our awareness. In its place, we occupy ourselves with the administrivia, or stuff instead of acting from our core. In this climate, we too easily forget that what we do is ultimately about the kids in our classrooms and schools.

In the book, Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day, Thich Nhat Hanh, provides us with advice on how to recapture, each moment of the day, “A New Way of Working.” This New Way of Working makes great sense no matter one's spiritual beliefs, and has the power to actually recharge us daily for the hard task and calling we face as educators. This New Way of Working reminds us each moment of each day why we became educators to begin with: the kids. I have taken the liberty here to adapt Hanh's suggestions to our unique calling as educators.
  • Begin by establishing harmony, love, and happiness within. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “Only when we establish harmony, love, and happiness within ourselves are we in a position to really help our business.” What's inside matters greatly to what's outside. We can't ignore our own spiritual and mental growth and hope to create a harmonious, compassionate, and peaceful place for our kids and staffs. We as educators must take time to work on our insides too. Soul Development (SD) is as important as Professional Development (PD). By engaging in Soul Development we empower ourselves to be centered educators present for all those around us.
  • Understand and support those with whom you work. “When someone feels that you understood them and you support them, they become your ally, and not only a worker,” says Thich Nhat Hanh. We don’t want just students in our classrooms, teachers in our buildings; we want allies, partners in our endeavors. We can’t do it alone no matter how hard we try or how intelligent we think we are. If we want to enlist the kids sitting in front of us, or the teachers in our buildings, we must practice understanding and support them in what they do. Practicing understanding means we listen compassionately and non-judgmentally. It means we view everyone as living, breathing beings with needs, wants, and desires like we ourselves have. Supporting them means finding ways to meet their needs. No matter how solitary we think our jobs and leaders are, there is no room in leadership for solos and soliloquies.
  • Agree on a code of behavior and action. “For a workplace to function well, there must be a code of behavior that everyone is willing to accept.” In our classrooms and our schools, we often establish duplicate sets of rules, one for the masses, and one for those in charge. Also, we post rules and codes of behavior in handbooks and on walls, thinking that their existence means they will be followed. In reality, those rules only become operational when all agree to follow them. Rules, policy and regulations only have value when they are agreed upon ways of doing. We need to take the time to establish norms of behavior and action that all can agree to adhere to. This means enlisting everyone in developing the norms of how all will behave and act as educators and as students.
  • Understand where everyone in coming from. “Understanding is the very foundation of love. If you don’t understand other’s difficulties , pain, suffering, and deepest aspirations, you can’t truly take good care of them or make them happy,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh. There are those in education who would turn schools into callous places where the bottom line is all that matters. In these places we label students as "proficient" or "not proficient." We label teachers and principals as "Meeting Standard" or "Not Meeting Standard." Instead, why not just label us all as human and call it a day? The truth is, we must understand our students, our teachers, our staff and our parents, and with a deeper understanding that move beyond to superficial labels and numbers to dealing with people where they are. It is the messy stuff of life and living that humans find themselves living in that we must understand, and trying to quantify those things away means leaving behind our humanity. We can’t take care of our students’ educational needs and all those in our schools apart from their physical and social needs. We as school leaders can’t make our schools places of compassion unless we practice compassionate understanding of students, parents, and our staffs.
Approaching our jobs as educators each day should be easy, for we became such because of love of learning and most often, a compassion for kids as well as humanity. As teachers and school leaders, we can foster “A New Way of Working” within our classrooms and schools. We can make our schools into places that are harmonious, happy, and peaceful, but we must have those qualities inside ourselves first and project those qualities in our roles as educators.

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