Contemplative Photography & Reflections

Teaching Compassion

I just learned that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will be at Emory University this week for talks, teachings, and discussions that will be webcasted live and presumably available to view afterwards, as well. My family and I went to hear him speak at Cornell University in October 2007, and last October I watched webcasts of his speaking engagements throughout New England and Virginia. It was a really uplifting week, and I look forward to more of the same this week!

October is a great time to be inspired by the Dalai Lama. One of his favorite topics is educating the heart, or “secular ethics in education.” Now that the school year is well underway and the idealism I dusted off over the summer has been shattered by the rigorous realities of the Common Core and more new curricula, it’s time to work with the pieces that are in front of me on the table and try to make the best of them. Their sharp, jagged edges pierce my heart and soul, but I remain hopeful that they will become smoother in time. How exactly that will happen, I don’t know, but they simply must. Right now, I need some inspiration, big-time.

I always appreciate hearing what the Dalai Lama has to say about education. It reminds me of why I wanted to teach in the first place. Sometimes I imagine myself asking him how I can reconcile what I know in my heart to be right and true with the way things are in public education now. His answer (in my mind) always conveys hope.

There has got to be something you can do right now to be part of a solution.

But first, I will provide a little context for my question.

For a couple years, I attempted to implement the Hawn Foundation’s (as in Goldie Hawn) MindUP Curriculum in my kindergarten classroom. It was a personal initiative; nobody else in my school was doing it, but it touched on virtually everything I felt was most important in social-emotional learning and supported my belief that educating the heart must go hand in hand with educating the mind. In a nutshell, the curriculum focuses on improving concentration, reducing stress and anxiety, managing emotions and interpersonal conflicts, choosing optimism and kindness, and developing empathy and resilience. It’s a really beautiful, well researched curriculum. I tried in earnest to implement it until this year. This year, I abandoned it (sadly) because I realize I do not have the resources or time to do it justice. But while still struggling with how to fit social-emotional learning into the curriculum, I was inspired by a panel discussion on “Educating the Heart and Mind” from the 2009 Vancouver Peace Summit. This was a nearly hour-long discussion between Eckhart Tolle, Sir Ken Robinson, Matt Goldman and Chris Wink from the Blue Man Group, Dan Siegel, Nobel physicist Murray Gell-Mann, and H.H. the Dalai Lama, moderated by Matthieu Ricard.

During the course of the panel discussion (at the 38:00 mark), Matt Goldman offered:

“Creativity has to be sewn into every single part of the educational process. Social and emotional learning – not a separate subject but part of everything – so that the skills of empathy, the skills of compassion – are all sewn into your literacy and your math and your social studies as strongly as anything.”

This became my new approach: Weave social-emotional learning throughout the curriculum rather than try to fit it into its own block.

But now we have a new obstacle. Teachers all across the state and country are being given new curricula. Tightly scripted curricula. And the curriculum packages seem to be constantly changing as more and “better” options become available from year to year. Even if we are given permission to adapt lessons to some extent, it is very time-consuming to learn a new curriculum. Adapting it takes even more time. After a couple years of implementation, it becomes easier to insert some degree of creativity and personal style into a curriculum. But not the first time around. The first time around, you learn it as you go along and just try to keep your head above water.

So it is within this context that, in my mind, I ask the Dalai Lama how to proceed. Here is the answer that came to me:

The least we can do despite it all – even if there is no time for anything else in the school day and the children won’t get it from the tight, mandated curriculum – is to model kindness and compassion. Every encounter and interaction with students or any other members of the school community is an opportunity to do just that. We can give the gift of compassionate listening and communicating – or a warm smile – to one another.

People handle stress differently, and some handle it better than others. Sometimes we reach our breaking point – the straw that broke the camel’s back – when yet another responsibility or demand is added to our already overflowing plate. And under all that pressure, sometimes we forget to smile and to be kind. To listen. To remember that we are all in this together. Sometimes we need to vent. Sometimes others need to vent to us. And if it comes out looking like anger, remember that it is rarely, if ever, personal. None of us made up these new rules. Everyone is doing his or her best to stay afloat, especially when everything we do is being evaluated and we are all under the microscope – when all we wanted in the first place was to make a positive difference in children’s lives.

It doesn’t take long to help someone who is in a state of anxiety or overwhelm. You don’t need to go immediately into problem-solving or avoid them because you don’t know how to help. Sometimes all people need to bring them back to a state of balance is to know that their feelings are being heard and that someone cares. Even if you can’t solve the problem right then and there, just pausing within an energy field of presence to reflect sincerely and compassionately, “Wow, you’re feeling really overwhelmed,” and “I’m so sorry,” can go a long way. When I feel stressed out and share my feelings with a particular colleague, she often asks (with eye contact and presence), “What can I do to help?” Even if I don’t have an answer to that question, I feel that my feelings are being acknowledged, and that makes a difference.

Oftentimes when a student is having a conflict or is telling me a story about something that happened at home, reflecting his or her feelings simply and sincerely – for instance, with a “You must have felt so…” sentence and an appropriate facial expression – is all s/he needs to carry on. The true communication is often much more about feelings than content, and it only takes a couple seconds for a child (or colleague, for that matter) to feel heard and cared for. And that builds relationship. As I have written before, teaching is fundamentally about the relationship between the teacher and the student. That relationship is the vehicle through which education occurs.

We need to remember to listen. It is such a gift! At the most basic level, that means not interrupting.

We need to remember to smile. Not because everything is wonderful and right in our school, but because smiling – despite it all – is an act of kindness and compassion. It also feels good to smile.

Small gestures of kindness and creating an energy field of presence go a long way in improving the atmosphere of a school. Little eyes are always watching, even when we don’t think they are. And little ears are always listening. Children learn so much from who the teacher is and how s/he acts. During a retreat at Omega Institute in June 2012, Eckhart Tolle asserted, “The child observes the parents’ [teacher’s] behavior and absorbs that, and also absorbs their state of consciousness. The child models your state of consciousness so that if you embody presence, then something of that will be absorbed by the child.” That is the unwritten curriculum. And that is the part over which we have some control.

So that is where I will start. Yes, a compassionate curriculum would be even better. But embodying a curriculum of compassion and awareness, to the best of my abilities, is how I will go about educating the heart right now, without waiting for anything else to change.

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 © Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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