Character Education

The Value of Compassion in Teaching

Four simple ways to model and promote compassion, which is especially important for students with adverse childhood experiences.

Two students serving free meals to homeless people at a free dining room
©Shutterstock/Monkey Business Images

I began my teaching career as a transplant to the Memphis community and felt an enormous culture shock. I quickly learned that many of my students needed a lot of support due to the troubling circumstances they faced on a daily basis—Memphis is one of the most violent cities in the United States.

At first I wasn’t sure what difference I could make in this situation. However, over time I learned that to combat the violence my students saw every day I needed to instill love and compassion into their learning experience. I needed to teach them how to care for one another as well as themselves. And I needed to lead by example as a loving, caring, and empathetic teacher.

One day after school, I had a conversation with a student who told me that he moved his bed into the middle of his bedroom every night to avoid the stray bullets that had hit his home before. He explained that this was why he was so tired in class—he didn’t sleep well due to constant fear and anxiety.

This is only one of the many examples I’ve accumulated over the years of the influence of violence on children’s academic success. Recent school shootings have heightened the fear of violence across school campuses, and now more than ever there’s an urgent need to teach children the power of love, kindness, and compassion.

Simple Ways to Teach Compassion

Practice what you preach: Teachers should model compassion and acts of compassion on a daily basis, by complimenting students on their successes, inquiring about their day or their weekend activities, and addressing all bullying behaviors consistently.

Also, I make sure to tell my students positive affirmations each morning, such as, “You are smart” and “You are capable,” to display my beliefs in their abilities. Our school’s morning announcements end with the phrase, “We love you, and make today great.” Affirmations such as these, from a whole school community, allow love, compassion, and support to be displayed to each and every student on a consistent basis.

Care for a pet: Allowing a pet in the classroom helps students learn about responsibility beyond taking care of themselves. A pet also shows students how to share responsibility among peers and how to trust one another with varying amounts of accountability.

A grant from Petco is a great way to receive assistance in obtaining a classroom pet. The easy-to-complete grant helps teachers get a variety of pets to educate students in the classroom.

In my classroom, we adopted three hermit crabs, which students were allowed to take home over the weekends. They needed to have parental approval to care for the pet, and they took a checklist of responsibilities they had to account for each day.

I used this opportunity as a classroom management tool, since only those students who exhibited excellent character were allowed to care for the pets by themselves.

Lend a helping hand: Allowing students to engage in community service projects and diversity activities helps them learn how to care for others as well. Some of the community service projects incorporated by my school are: canned food drives during the holiday season, spare change drives during times of natural disasters, and community beautification projects such as our school garden. Students can also be encouraged to volunteer for activities like feeding the homeless.

When students have an opportunity to lend a helping hand, it provides them with knowledge about current events as well as ways that they can help provide assistance and create change for others. For students who regularly receive support from others, showing them how to lend a helping hand builds self-esteem, motivation, and confidence.

Play the Compassion Games: The global competition called the Compassion Games is a spin on The Hunger Games—students can compete in tracking their acts of kindness once you register their class online (individuals can play on their own, too). Teachers can log their students’ acts of kindness via the website, and students compete with their peers around the country and the globe to see who has the most compassion.

The competition runs in April and September, and students and teachers inspire the movement of kindness by tracking and accumulating service projects and/or missions of compassion, thus instilling these principles of moral character on a global scale. I brought this community engagement experience into my classroom in order to promote acts of compassion within the school and our local community.

As I reflect upon my teaching experience and the community I call home, I find myself constantly thinking about the future of my students. As I continue to see violence throughout the community that surrounds them, I feel that a shift toward lessons encompassing love, compassion, and kindness is a priority. Such lessons must become a focal point in academic communities in order to promote and inspire significant change.