Thursday, February 26, 2015

Compassion: What It's Not

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To piggyback off my last post about creating a culture of charity in our schools by teaching compassion and respect for our fellow man, perhaps we need to consider if and how compassion can be taught.

Sometimes the best way to comprehend a term or idea is to identify what is it not.  I find myself doing this all the time in ESL class.  As I teach my English learners new words and phrases, I also illustrate and explain the antonyms so that they gain a richer understanding and learn them in context. Just like a rubric describes the expectations of a final product, it also clearly illustrates the levels of quality from excellent to poor so we understand what it is and what it isn't. Back when I was a business education teacher, I gave both good and bad examples of a finished project, so students were clear on what they should avoid doing. It also saved me from having to explain to a young person that what they thought was really cool was actually, well, tacky.

So what is compassion not? According to the antonym that best helps define compassion is "indifference".Just as I teach definitions by providing synonyms and antonyms, I think we need to learn what we need not to do, in order to be compassionate human beings.  It's pretty clear that animosity, ill will, cruelty, meanness and hatred are all polar opposites of compassion, but one might perceive indifference as rather neutral.  That one word has made me rethink compassion altogether.  I consider myself a pretty loving and caring person, but there are so many times when I have turned a blind eye and/or a deaf ear to someone in need because I'm busy fulfilling my essential duties. How often have I missed an opportunity to stop and lend a listening ear to someone who's having a miserable day simply because I'm focused on my planned activities or just don't think I have the time.

So, can compassion be taught? Well, I think so, but what we must learn is what it is not. We can't be compassionate if we are disconnected and disengaged from our surroundings. By teaching our young people (and ourselves) to slow down and not be indifferent, we are teaching compassion and it is then that we will make a difference in our world.


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Culture of Charity

It's been a long time since I've been a student, but for the life of me, I can't remember having so many fundraisers.  I teach at two schools and my kids attend two different schools. There are months when we will have one or more school or charity fundraisers per week, most of them involving food. While it's great to get a break from cooking, it's hard on the budget and the waistline, but we support our schools and/or our favorite charities as much as possible.

My kids were barely talking when they learned the phrase "sharing is caring".  Well, let me restate that, my husband and I taught them the phrase, but even though they are now 9 and 11, the learning process is still underway.  My husband and I are children of Cuban immigrants and didn't exactly enjoy a life of privilege.  We both remember having everything we needed, not really feeling poor, but we were keenly aware that our resources weren't exactly plentiful.  Furthermore, not only did our parents have limited English language skills, they also were not college educated in their homeland, so they had to take up low paying jobs and often work extremely hard for those menial wages. Regardless of their circumstances, our parents taught and modeled a strong work ethic and enabled us to stand on their shoulders so we could achieve what they could not. They also made sure that we didn't forget where we came from and instilled in us a sense of charity and generosity.  Our parents drilled into us that we are blessed to be a blessing and not entitled to anything. And that, my friends, is a message I remind my children and my students of every day.

Continuing with February's #reflectiveteacher community's theme of kindness and caring, last week's question was "How can we create a culture of charity in our schools/classroom?"  Although I wrote this question, I found myself totally stumped when it came to writing about it.  What will it take to create a culture of charity in our schools? More service projects, charity fundraisers, blood drives - do those activities create a culture of charity?  Does it make us less indifferent to those in need? I believe today we have more fundraisers and service projects that I remember in my own school experience, yet with each passing year, I witness an increasing sense of entitlement among our young people.  We give more than ever, but yet we spend countless instructional hours teaching kids not to bully or tease one another.  With all the giving and sharing, I'm concerned that the message is not reaching their hearts and much less creating a culture of charity in our schools.

So what is it going to take to create that "culture of charity"?   Let's take a look at the definition of school culture according to The Glossary of Education Reform.  "The term school culture refers to the beliefs, perceptions, relationships, attitudes and written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of how a school functions, but the term also encompasses more concrete issues such as the physical and emotional safety, the orderliness of classrooms and public spaces, or the degree to which a school embraces and celebrates racial, ethnic, linguistic or cultural diversity."  (, 2013)

I believe that in order to create that culture of charity, we must begin with the attitudes of compassion and respect toward our fellow man.  Charity is indeed about helping those in need, those less fortunate, but sometimes those needs and misfortunes are not obvious and/or are misconstrued.  That rich kid who is lonely and depressed is also a person in need.  The new kid in school who needs a friend to have lunch with doesn't feel very fortunate. There are groups of folks who are obviously in need but let's not overlook the small opportunities to help one another.

I'm not sure exactly what's needed to create that culture of charity, but I know that we need to go beyond the obvious and start small.  I think we need to teach - and most importantly model - that charity is so much more than donating money or clothing.  Charity is humbly giving of ourselves because it is in giving that we receive.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Paying It Forward

Pay It Forward - a favorite movie for many folks.  Not for me. It's a great movie, has great actors, but I strongly disliked the ending. One thing I really enjoyed was that the main characters are a teacher and a student which is the reason I was interested in watching it. If you've never watched it, here's a spoiler alert. The movie is amazingly inspiring right up until the very end.  As a hopeless romantic and optimist, I was crushed when the boy didn't get what he deserved.  I was not only disappointed, I was devastated. 

As I pondered on this week's question - "How can we teach students to pay kindness forward - to give expecting nothing in return?"- I couldn't help but think about the film.  Honestly, I am still so heartbroken by that ending that I hate to even use that phrase, but the reality is that life is just like that.  True generosity is not about giving expecting to receive or giving back what's deserved but it's about giving expecting nothing in return.  Furthermore, we can't expect our generosity to always be returned and sometimes may not even be recognized.  As I began to ponder on this week's question, I realized that perhaps my disappointment lies in my inability to accept life's reality.

According to Wikipedia, the expression "pay it forward" simply refers to paying a good deed to someone other than the person who was good to you.  It is also a legal term which means paying a debt forward to a third party instead of paying it back to the original creditor (see the Wikipedia link).  But aside from the acts of kindness, I believe paying it forward is more about attitude than about actions. If your heart isn't right, the deeds can be tarnished. Gifts don't have to be tangible and deeds can be as simple as a smile or a genuine compliment, but when our motives are pure, there's an undeniable magic that may be unspoken but its impact is huge. 

Okay, so back to the original question.  How can I teach my students to pay kindness forward - to give expecting nothing in return?  In my humble opinion, this is one of those soft skills that must be modeled.  In order for my students (and my own children) to be able to learn to pay it forward, they must see it in me.  Sure, I can develop service learning projects, charity fundraisers for sick children and canned goods drives for the less fortunate, I can do that and so much more and still may not be paying it forward.  Kids are watching closely even when it seems they are not looking. Opportunities to pay it forward come all day long.  They may not always seem very significant, but they are there and if we seize the moment, we are teaching them by our actions.

Life is hard and our good deeds are not always returned. There are always those negative, difficult people that embitter our lives no matter how hard we try to make peace with them.  We don't always get what we want or think we deserve, we don't always win no matter how hard we try and we don't always live happily ever after.  But, we can live for the moment and make it as bright and beautiful as we possibly can.

This post has made me reflect on my own attitude and made me realize that I need to be more attentive to all those opportunities to pay it forward because in attempting to bless that one person I may be able to change the world.


Sunday, February 1, 2015

What's Love Got To Do With It?

Once again I sit down to write a blog post and another retro song pops into my mind. This time it's the song "What's Love Got To Do With It" by Tina Turner.  I have to say that I'm not a big fan of Tina Turner and while it was a catchy tune, I'm not really a fan of that song either.  No offense to any fans out there, but love is for certain not "a second hand emotion" and most certainly not limited to romanticism. 

This month's #reflectiveteacher blogging theme is "Kindness and Caring" and I had the privilege of helping write our prompts, together with Penny Christensen (@Pen63).  For me personally, February is the month of Love and Compassion and you can't be loving and compassionate without being kind and caring so I'm really excited about this month's theme.  This week's prompt is "How can we demonstrate love while maintaining healthy (legal) boundaries?"

I think we need to start with the definition of love.  For me, the perfect definition of love is found not in Webster, but in 1 Corinthians 13.  

Regardless of your religious persuasion, or lack thereof, these words can be embraced by any kind and caring individual.  So if you are not inclined to read the Holy Bible, please know that this post is not intended to convert you to Christianity. Rather it is a very fitting description of love that if lived out will enable teachers to demonstrate love in their classrooms and foster a climate of kindness and caring. 

So back to the prompt, how can I demonstrate love to my students?  If I am patient and kind, not envious, boastful or proud, if I'm humble, not arrogant or self-seeking, not easily angered and not resentful, I am demonstrating love.  If I celebrate success, even with those that probably don't deserve it, if I protect, trust, persevere and never lose hope in my students, I am demonstrating love.  I don't need to hug them or tell them I love them - I know some elementary teachers do lots of that, but at the secondary level there are not too many "I love you's" thrown around and it's probably better that way. The love felt in our classes is rarely verbalized, but it's there. Undeniably it's difficult to love the unlovable, but we can't capture kids' hearts and minds if teachers and administrators don't initiate and model kindness and caring. Like any human being, I'm not perfect and I have my days, but I set out to look beyond the external and search for the soft heart that is so often well hidden. I have found that many times when I seek to find that good, I find it.

Actions always speak louder than words and I find that keeping those verses written so long ago in my heart helps me to shine my light even in the darkest moments.While I wouldn't post those bible verses in my room, I think most of my blog's readers are tolerant adults and I trust you will find yourself inspired by those words.

What's love got to do with teaching?  Everything.