Saturday, January 28, 2023

What Does Compassion in Education Look LIke?

Since the pandemic started, educators have been asked to use a "trauma-informed" approach to their teaching, i.e. pay attention to the psychological safety of their students. Some of the literature on this looks pretty good: build connections through empathy, be consistent and predictable in the classroom, be flexible to accommodate different needs, delight in students by finding the best in them, and co-regulate by sharing your calmness with others. But, in practice, it fell apart a bit.

In my own experience, I was made to be flexible at the expense of consistency and predictability in a way that overrode our guiding documents. And, I'd argue, in a way that wasn't compassionate. 

I practiced a trauma-informed approach long before it was called that, providing clear expectations but with many alternatives for people to choose. Before my classes start, I'd email a survey of questions to students asking if they'd have any concerns with general rules and deadlines, and where they'd prefer to sit in the room, what would make them most comfortable, what they like to be called, etc., so that when they walked into the room on the first day, they knew exactly what to expect and they had already had some say in what the room looked like. These are grade 12s, many over 18. With Covid, I added more questions about what would make them feel safe, and I asked if having windows open 1/2" would be okay to add some ventilation to the room. 

Then, once in the room, I again asked if people were comfortable where they were sitting and if it wasn't too cold. Everyone was fine. Except somebody wasn't, but they likely didn't want to be the odd one out in the class, so texted dad, who called admin, who marched down to my class immediately to tell me, "Kids can't learn if they're cold!" And the students learned a valuable lesson that day: Get dad to call admin, and you can make anything happen right before your eyes! 

We talked about what to do if you have a conflict with a person, that it's always best to start with to the offending person directly, and then go higher up if you feel like you're not being heard or not being treated fairly. "Resolving" a conflict doesn't always mean getting what you want, though. We have to measure out what we want, what others want, and if anyone needs something to happen differently to figure out what's fair. I asked them, What will you do in a few months, if you have a concern about a class in university? 

Get my dad to call the university. 

I shocked them by letting them know that university profs and administrators won't talk to their parents. 

Some of these burgeoning adults are grossly unprepared to stand on their own two feet. 

But that admin visit set the tone for the class. I've never allowed eating in the room because it can be distracting. If someone can't eat during lunch, they're welcome to come late or sit in the hallway to finish. It leads to a few eating very discretely from time to time, which doesn't pose much of a problem. One student showed up with a full meal covering their desk. I asked them later, privately, to try to finish at lunch or to let me know if there's some reason they can't. They got admin on side out of compassion for them, and the next day, five kids showed up to class with full meals in take-out containers and set down for a feast. But what about compassion for the kids who struggle to pay attention with people slurping and chewing next to them and with the smell of food in the room. What about kids with misophonia? The needs of the many were superseded by the desires of the few. 

In the previous term, some assignments weren't submitted on time, which often happens with a few students. I offer an optional final exam (we can no longer have mandatory final exams because they're too stressful), which can override any missed work or wipe out the lowest scoring assignment during the term. That has worked to help kids for years, but suddenly it's not nice to have due dates. In the last month of class, I was told I had to continue accepting the earliest assignment that was long completed and had been already taken up. Our official policy says that teachers must set a date after which work will not be accepted for marks, but that's out the window. That news got around to kids, and some students in this class let me know they planned to submit the work at the very end. They'd do it all later.

And then the games came out. Apparently games can help kids cope with difficulties, so I was to accommodate the sudden shouts of joy when someone finished a level during my lecture, and the class had to tolerate the interruptions. We were being compassionate.

My students learned that coping with trauma and difficulties means being allowed to do whatever you want whenever you want to do it. I left halfway through the term, unable to teach without necessary supports after decades of successfully getting some of the most difficult classes to the finish line. A couple parents emailed, upset that all the Covid protections I had set in place completely disappeared when I left. I had almost the entire class in masks well after the mandates ended. The supply teacher didn't wear a mask, so all the kids stopped wearing them too. 

My most difficult class previously was years ago. I had a grade 10 group with only one girl in it, and many of the guys in gang colours. Apparently they were just "play" gangs, because there was one student who was in a real gang. He only came about once a week or so, and I loved when he showed up because you could hear a pin drop. The posing and bravado of the other boys got turned way down. He was legit interested in history, so actual learning happened in there, and some of that interest filtered into the crazier days when the boys needed more active subduing from me. All of them were able to demonstrate their understanding of the essential concepts by the end of the term. I couldn't do any of that without backing. They gave up trying to own me when they saw that admin was on side. That's gone now.

Here's the thing: It is nice to have due dates. It doesn't help kids to let them do whatever they want. Letting them hand in work at the end of the year means they have a pile of work to do at once, and that's not good for anybody. Setting up class rules, like no food, also helps kids know what they can expect in the room and that, for those 75 minutes, learning take priority over all else.

But this year sounds very different. I'm not there to see it with my own eyes, but I've been hearing about policies that don't make sense, but in the opposite direction. They're all about getting kids in the classroom. No accommodations are being made for students who are anxious about being in a room with 35 kids, unmasked, during a pandemic. "Anxious" isn't the right word. They're legitimately concerned about getting a brain-invasive virus. And some schools have flipped from letting kids do anything they want, to demanding they lose marks if they're not in the room for every class.

So some parents are taking their kids out of public schools. And the only people who win are those tied up with Ford's privatization scheme.

Remember when people would talk about the four styles of parenting: neglectful, marshmallow, authoritarian, and assertive? Sometimes the words change slightly, but those are the ones I learned. A marshmallow parent has trouble setting boundaries. They'll give kids candy whenever they ask for it because it makes them immediately happy, then be baffled when they won't eat their dinner later. Even worse, the marshmallow parent can suddenly flip into an authoritarian parent when they've had enough, and, out of nowhere, scream at the kids for asking for candy and throw out all the junk food in the house in a flurry. It's hard for children to be raised like that. 

It feels like that's what we're doing in our schools. Instead of firm and consistent boundaries (due dates, fair classroom rules that acknowledge everyone in the room, etc.), we let them run the show for a couple years, and now we're in the screaming stage to try to get it back, going way too far in the other direction. 

Being compassionate means having fair and consistent boundaries for kids that focus on optimal learning, whether it's in the classroom or working from home. And students need to know that teachers and admin are on board, together, to maintain these boundaries for the longterm benefit of the kids.   

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