In my experience, having compassion for students is directly related to high student engagement.
Compassion shouldn’t be confused with empathy. The University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good magazine asserts that empathy causes us to “take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another,” and compassion is “when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.”
Interestingly, during a podcast interview, neuroscientist Dr. Chris Kukk stated that empathy uses pain neurocircuits, while compassion uses neurocircuits that carry love. Kukk went on to say that compassion is action; empathy is feeling. Additionally, compassion can be more sustainable, while empathy can burn you out.
5 Ways I Show Compassion in the Classroom
1. If kids are absent, I open up Zoom no matter what, no questions asked. I have a Zoom room that I open up if students aren’t present in the classroom. If they are online, we have class. If not, I close it and mark them absent.
At my school, as we faced students in quarantine, we created a new attendance code, “PZ” for present in Zoom, so that attending virtually would not count against students. Students have many reasons to be out, and compassionately giving them access to class without requiring an explanation helps students take a deep breath and learn without worrying about what to say to their peers or the teacher.
2. Personally connect to every student every day of class. You have to relate to educate, so I have ways to connect to students at the beginning of class each day. In my physical classroom, I stand at the door as students enter. I call them by name and look them in the eyes to notice changes. If I’m not sure how they are doing, I ask them.
Once, I had a student who looked exhausted, and I asked him about it. He had been dropped off at school directly after being at the hospital all night with his mom, who was birthing his baby brother. This was the only time I asked a student to go to sleep in class. We made up the work later, and I maintained a positive relationship with him until he graduated.
In Zoom, I have to greet students differently. After the students in class are working, I have Zoom time with the kids who are online. If they’re willing, they turn on cameras. If not, they can talk or even share a private message. They know I don’t have to know why they are out, but I want to know how they are doing.
Most students want us to ask how they are doing. So ask. Every day. It makes a difference, and they know you care.
3. Conduct private polls and mood checks. After all breaks, I do a quick private poll/mood check with students. I typically ask a few questions like these:
- How glad are you to be back at school today? (1 to 10, with 10 being excited and 1 being they don’t want to be here)
- How glad were you to be on break? (1 to 10)
- How do you explain the difference? (open-ended)
Sometimes I have used emojis for student mood; however, in my experience, polling with an open-ended question has yielded better results:
- “I’m not ready to be here today because we didn’t have a chance to get my school supplies.”
- “I was excited to come back, but now I have someone sitting near me that makes me afraid.”
- “I didn’t like summer because I think I’m the only one who didn’t get to do something exciting, and I’m ready to be back at school.”
Over my 20 years in the classroom, students have shared many things with me that have helped me relate to them better, become a better teacher, and create a safer classroom environment. Compassion is not only understanding how they feel but doing something to make the situation better, if it’s in our power to do so.
4. Reach out when kids aren’t there. One of the worst experiences for a child is to have their absence go unnoticed.
I know of a parent who decided to move their child to another school when the child missed a day at school and no one asked about the child. Not one person. No teacher. No student. Heartbreak. Knowing that you matter to others is an essential need.
So, if a student is out, I ask if anyone has checked on them. If no one has checked, I ask a student to retrieve their phone, check on their friend, and also say, “Mrs. Davis is asking about you and says she hopes you’re OK.”
Loneliness is increasing as social connection is decreasing, so I view encouraging social connections with students who are out as an act of compassion. I want every student to know they matter to me and to their classmates.
5. Provide peer connection. If the classwork of the day is done, I leave time at the end of class for the students physically present to socialize with those who are not in class.
Socialization time is vital. Kids can feel left out. I walk away from my computer and let kids chat and know they are missed. If, however, we have group work, the kids at home are assigned teams just like everyone else. While we could use breakout rooms, my students prefer individual FaceTime and are propped up on the table and become part of the group. This helps things feel normal. Wherever they are—if they are well—I want to help them make progress.
Our students have been through so much. We teachers have, too. The only way I see to move forward is to acknowledge their pain and use compassionate measures to help them.