IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Opinion: Student Behavior Issues Call for Compassion

As learning loss and behavioral issues have gotten worse over years of disruption to normal classroom routines, the need for educators to model compassion and understanding is greater than ever.

“During difficult times, and these are difficult times, it’s compassion before curriculum, grace before accountability. And grant yourself the same," said author and educator Rick Wormeli.

I didn’t come up with it on my own, but this guides my work every day:

  • How we teach is as important as what we teach.

  • How we treat students is more important than what we teach them.

Remember that for teachers, students are not our prisoners but precious cargo. We must be good listeners and treat them with compassion and respect. That’s a lesson they will never forget. These times of stress and change make this even more difficult, and the lives of teachers are not easy these days.

As professionals, teachers must listen, really listen, before they respond and react. They must look for the positive and remember to tell students what they're doing right. Teachers need to have a gentle sense of humor and good cheer. Most importantly, they must be compassionate — aware of the distress of others and desiring to alleviate it.

It's great when compassion can come from the curriculum, to have students read inspiring books about heroes who lead ethical and courageous lives, or about those who always had a smile on their face and a kind word to say. But it's also wonderful for teachers to model this behavior themselves, and it's something for us all to strive for. Harvard’s education school has an entire program dedicated to this called the Making Caring Common Project, which describes its goal as “a world in which children learn to care about others and the common good, [and] treat people well day to day.”

During a recent school visit, a teacher told me of an incident of a normally attentive student not paying attention or participating in class discussions. Luckily, the teacher just gave the student some space because the next day he apologized for his behavior. The student said that just before class, he found out his mother had violated parole and his siblings were about to be taken into foster care. The last thing he needed was to be called out — he needed care, compassion and understanding.

Who knows if that student falling asleep or not paying attention in class may have been up all night taking care of someone ill in their household, or maybe holding down a full-time job at night to help support their single-parent family. That's why my plea to teachers is: Find out before assuming the worst.

I found a simple way to help me address this issue. I work with students every day, and I know how easy it is to find fault or notice what needs to be corrected. So I force myself to stop reacting. I hit my invisible pause button and take a deep breath. I stop. I think. I look for the good and what is going right. I realize I don’t always have enough data to draw conclusions. I try to do what I tell my students to do when studying current events: “first the facts, then the opinions.” Remember we are presumed innocent until proven guilty. My effort to stop reacting and find out what is going on can start with common courtesy and a warm greeting. Setting a good example is important to do, and an important lesson.

Lecture-based classrooms make this difficult to do. Proficiency-based classrooms, which involve individualized learning plans and flexible schedules, remove the teacher from the front of the room and allow them to address individual student needs. This is yet another reason to look at organizations like the Modern Classrooms Project that help encourage individual teacher attention and compassion.

As Rick Wormeli says, “We teach and assess to engender hope, not despair.” It is easy to forget.
Mark Siegel is assistant head at Delphian School in Sheridan, Ore.