A Compassionate Education

I wasn’t feeling 100% the other day so stayed home to rest and do just a little work (hard to stay completely away from it) and over the course of the day read The Wisdom of Compassion by the Dalai Lama and Victor Chan (2012). One of the things I so appreciated about this book was the storytelling nature of it – Victor writes from the perspective of accompanying His Holiness to various places around the world and recording the interactions, comments, and teachings of the Dalai Lama. Through this lens a beautiful balance is achieved between the awe inspiring elements of the way His Holiness moves through the world and touches the lives of so many, and the very human and humane aspects of his everyday engagement with the most subtle aspects of life. I found it inspiring because of how accessible the Dalai Lama’s humility makes him.

 

While so much of the content of the book is relevant to social justice and equity work, I was particularly struck by the mention of how notions of compassion, empathy, and mindfulness have been applied to P-12 educational settings. The Dalai Lama states, “My hope and wish is that, one day, formal education will pay attention to what I call education of the heart. Just as we take for granted the need to acquire proficiency in the basic academic subjects, I am hopeful that a time will come when we can take it for granted that children will learn, as part of their school curriculum, the indispensability of inner values such as love, compassion, justice, and forgiveness (p.93).” It seems that many educational researchers have taken up this charge by His Holiness. Dr. Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, for example, in her work at the University of British Columbia has developed mindfulness frameworks for both students and teachers which have had far-reaching impacts. In another quote from the book it is stated that, “In 2010, U.S. researchers analyzed 213 studies involving nearly 300,000 students in elementary and middle schools. They found that those students who received social, emotional, mindfulness instruction scored 11 to 17 percentage points higher on achievement tests, compared with those who did not receive such instruction. The students also felt better about school and behaved more positively. The result? Fewer incidents of alcohol and drug use, violence, and bullying (p. 160).”

 

In everyday life it should be obvious that when one is more compassionate and caring, they will be happier and that, in turn, will have substantial impacts on all areas of their life, including school. And yet, in all the work I have done in schools over the years I have not encountered one single institution that integrates mindfulness in their in-service training for teachers, their curriculum, their counseling practices, or their discipline practices. Not one.

 

How is it that we, who pride ourselves on our expertise regarding teaching and learning, so thoroughly miss this simple fact and as a result deny our students a range of skills that have proven for millennia to be emotionally, spiritually, intellectually and socially beneficial? There could be a range of answers to this: the focus on standardized testing, overcrowding in our schools, a teacher education and preparation system that has not kept up with this research, or perhaps good old-fashioned xenophobia about anything that can be affiliated with a “religious” perspective that is not in line with U.S. Christian hegemony (on occasion I have been told not to say the word “meditate” when I do my training ground-ins because some staff will think I’m talking about devil-worship or cult practices). In my teacher education work at St Cloud State, however, I began using excerpts regarding mindfulness from Daniel Siegel’s The Mindful Brain (2007) and then later Davidson and Begley’s The Emotional Life of Your Brain (2012) and it really struck a nerve with students; they felt the truth of the content as much as they cognitively understood it. This also bore out in the first class of the semester when I would ask students to, “List the qualities of your favorite, most impactful P-12 teacher” and invariably they would list characteristics that were connected to the principles of mindfulness, compassion, empathy and care.

 

Given the above-stated research evidence, personal experience and simple human truth, I invite anyone involved in education to more intentionally integrate mindfulness and the development of skills regarding compassion, care and empathy into their educational work. In particular, for schools and districts addressing issues of equity and social justice, a commitment to developing mindfulness is even more critical. Equity in our schools simply cannot / will not be achieved without a deeply felt sense of compassion and care for each other. Racism, sexism, classism and the like all serve to divide the human family, prey upon our fears, create imaginary “others” and lead us down a path of division, derision, and struggle. Compassion, care, empathy, and love, however, do just the opposite and make schools and society safer and more productive.

 

Genuine compassion, as it is discussed in another quote from HHDL, is, “based not on our own projections and expectations but rather on the rights of the other: irrespective of whether another person is a close friend or an enemy, as long as that person wishes for peace and happiness and wishes to overcome suffering, then on that basis we develop a genuine concern for his or her problems (p.1).” Given this perspective and the intense complexities our young people are facing today, it is clearly time for our schools to set a new course in education, one that prepares our students to be successful in school and life with respect to both their minds and their hearts such that they are able to act upon and within the world with wisdom and compassion.

 

H.H. Dalai Lama and Chan, V. (2012). The Wisdom of Compassion. New York: Riverhead Books.

Privacy Preference Center