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Creating More Compassionate Classrooms

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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two children happily posing for the camera

I had been trying to start class for several minutes. Our normal post-weekend check-in had failed. Instead of hearing updates from each other, students were having side conversations about the school dance. Once I regained everyone's attention, two girls walked in late and the whole class stopped to watch as they gave each other a consoling hug before they moved toward their seats.

I was losing patience. This was not the strong start I had envisioned for the first in-class workday of our project. "Who is ready to share the main question for their project?" I asked in an attempt to refocus everyone and manage the energy emanating from 33 frenetic 15- and 16-year-olds.

The number of decisions that teachers have to make in the course of a teaching day, or even during a ten-minute period, is enormous. Like so many other teachers, I feel stretched to my max during a school day, so the thought of setting another goal feels daunting. Yet I wonder if, in the midst of the controlled chaos of classrooms, it is possible to increase compassion.

At Science Leadership Academy, where I teach, we talk of creating a school-wide Ethic of Care (as described by Nel Noddings). As I continually investigate new ways to help more students find success in their work and confidence in their abilities, I become increasingly convinced that I must develop a stronger ethic of compassion within the daily, overflowing moments of a class period.

What Can Compassion Mean in a Classroom?

A compassionate classroom environment is not an environment that lacks academic rigor. In this environment, students are understood to be complex people. Here, young people feel that they belong. Here, they meet challenge and encouragement while we ask them to be the best versions of themselves. Compassionate classrooms are places where student voices and student ideas are prioritized.

I hope that by identifying and practicing these simple structural and pedagogical reminders, I will be able to steadily improve my ethic of compassion:

1. Remembering to Check In

I get so excited about content and projects that it's easy for me to forget how my students' minds are already busy with thoughts that don’t relate to my class (imagine that!) when they arrive in the classroom. I find that small gestures can have a large effect on the energy and mood of a group. Sometimes this means checking in with individual students via short conversations at the door, or starting class by asking everyone how they are and having volunteers share bits of news. It gives us a short transition time together where we first reconnect as individuals and then switch to content.

2. Informal Conferencing

Interacting with students individually and in smaller groups during class shifts the dynamic between teacher and students. I want to remember to regularly spend portions of class time kneeling down next to students at their tables as we consult about their work. Too often I forget the importance and necessity of integrating these check-ins into our class time.

3. Increasing Personal Connections With Content

We all feel more engaged when topics relate to our lives. Some of my units allow students to make powerful connections. An example is a unit on Renaissance art that investigates issues of representation and then uses a similar framework to have students analyze modern day advertising. I am planning to find more ways to highlight these overt connections more frequently.

4. Asking Better Questions

Sometimes I will ask a student too general a question about the progress of a project, and their short, clipped affirmative response will end our conversation. At other times I remember to ask specific questions such as:

  • What is the main idea you are developing for your conclusion?
  • How are you analyzing that source?
  • What parts do you feel good about, and what are you struggling with?

When I ask the right questions, my connections with even the most reticent students get stronger.

5. Expressing Belief in Student Abilities

When my students and I are at our best, the work they create is powerful. I have learned that there is incredible value to setting high expectations while expressing confidence that students can succeed with tasks that may feel overwhelming. On a group project, I may remind a class, "This is challenging, but if you are working together and using your time wisely, you will be able to create something impressive."

6. Being Flexible and Accepting Failure When It Happens

When students run into problems that impede their progress, I want to remember to be flexible while maintaining a high standard. When students do not succeed, I want to remember to make it clear to them that while I had hoped for more, everyone messes up. I find that this balance of rigor and understanding is key to students feeling that they belong in a class.


Credit: BrainBank

Songs of Selves

Caring about young people is a primary reason that adults choose to teach. Sadly, it can be very challenging to find ways of being a caring presence in the midst of jam-packed school days. If, as teachers, we plan strategically to increase compassion in our classrooms, more young people will grow up believing the important words of Walt Whitman in Song of Myself:

"I am large, I contain multitudes."

How have you made your classroom a more compassionate place?

Was this useful? (1)

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

J. Tyler's picture
J. Tyler
Elementary LD Resource Teacher

Having a compassionate classroom will lead to a more positive classroom culture. It is extremely important for students to feel welcome while in the classroom. The six points that you mentioned to having a more compassionate classroom were great. Allowing students to be able to express themselves without the fear of making mistakes is a great learning tool for them. If they make an error, they will be able to analyze why they arrived to a certain answer, and how they should answer reach their answer the next time they are faced with a similar problem.

Cami Chirita's picture
Cami Chirita
Kindergarten Teacher

Hello Joshua Block,

First of all, thank you for sharing this inspirational article with the public. I understand the frustration you experienced with trying to redirect the students' attention to the main focus point. I can relate to the emotions you described because I often lose my patience when this happens. Many times I think that there is a battle between me and the students. Thus, I tried the same method you mentioned and started to check in with my students. I noticed a huge difference when I remembered to check-in.

My day was a lot smoother if I had short conversations with my students and allowed them to share what was on their mind. When my students had an opportunity to connect with each other at an appropriate time, they did not feel the need to interrupt my teachings. I realized how powerful this simple gesture was when a student told me that nobody at home listened to him. He continued to tell me how his mom was always on the phone and rarely made an attempt to talk to him. Many students do not receive attention at home.

When they step into my classroom, I want them to feel a sense of belonging. I want them to know that I care about them. I strive to create a compassionate environment. As effective teachers, it is our responsibility to create a warm and caring environment that fosters student growth. By maintaining strong relationships with the students, we can promote school connectivity. We must put forth effort in establishing a relationship with our students and showing them that we sincerely care. Maintaining a positive student-teacher relationship can impact the students and give them a sense of belonging and acceptance. If we want to build the student's self-esteem and improve their learning, we must show them that we believe in them and teach them to believe in themselves.

Thank you for sharing the different ways that we can foster compassion in our classroom.


Cami Chirita

Jose Servin's picture

Having a Compassionate Classroom
I use: Being flexible when failure happens. I love using that. Students are afraid to make mistakes, they always want to be right. Creating an environment where students can attempt to answer without really knowing if they are correct is crucial. I tell my students that nobody is perfect and I do not expect them to be either. Making mistakes is part of learning.

N. Lawson's picture
N. Lawson
Second Grade teacher from Virginia

With all that our children are facing these days and ages it is important to have a compassionate place to come too.Its up to us to build relationships with these students so they can feel that someone is in there corner. I like the six points that you came up with were great.

teacherottley's picture
4th,5th and 6th teacher in Panama, Central America

Hello, I experienced the power of compassion this week when handling a situation with a fifth grade student. This student constantly talks during my class and wants to draw attention at all times and the way that I have been handling it is by either looking her way to indicate that I cannot continue speaking until she is silent or I call her name (this is the less effective method), or I would take her outside of the classroom and plead with the student and ask her to please be quiet and follow the rules of the classroom.
On a recent occasion her talking was going on while another student was providing a presentation and I really needed all students on task, so I took her outside of the classroom and I asked her how she was doing today and heard her response and proceeded to explain to her why it was important that she be silent while others were presenting. She got it and was silent for the remainder of class and I think that it really was my tone and how I showed genuine concern as to how she was doing. As a first year teacher, I have found that being compassionate with your students can be indeed a powerful tool.

teacherottley's picture
4th,5th and 6th teacher in Panama, Central America

Well said Cami! I see how seasoned teachers tend to be more relaxed and able to relate with students and I am emulating that behavior from the effective teachers at the school were I teach.

Debra's picture
First grade teacher, Washington

First, we have a classroom constitution that my students and I created together and signed it as an agreement. When the behavior or actions began to stray off, we refer to our constitution.
Secondly, our school counselor comes in twice a month and read books and gives my students strategies on social thinking issues. He addresses issues such as "bucket filling" and bucket dipping". The students learn that their words and actions can either make someone feel happy or sad. My students often refer to this when they are happy or sad, and even when we read a book they will say," that's bucket dipping" or "that's bucket filling".

Norah's picture
Early childhood teacher, writer, life-long learner

This is a great post, Joshua. I love the description you provide of a compassionate classroom. I think the six suggestions you make are excellent ones and should form the basis of any classroom environment. I appreciate that you linked to the information about Nel Noddings. I am both embarrassed and disappointed to say that I wasn't aware of her before. I will have to do some more reading about her. I think I will be very interested in what she has to say. Congratulations on your blog also. you have some great content there.

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