Bringing Compassion into Education: Recovery & Reading the World

The school year has begun for those of us with children, for those of us who are students, and for those of us who are teachers.  The relationships between children, teachers and parents are a central focus of my education research and the catalyst for transforming my career in education. This is partly the reason for my excitement when the new principal of my second grader held a Q&A conversation with second grade parents.  She was sending the message that connecting with parents is important to her, that relationships matter.  She also shared a piece of her philosophy of education when she started the conversation with a picture book entitled, Wait. In each picture, the mother is pulling her son behind her and saying “Hurry!” The next page is a beautiful picture of the boy observing something interesting to him and saying, “Wait.” The story goes on like this until it ends with the mother and son together observing the rainbow and saying, “Wait.”  It is a simple yet important reminder to slow down and be fully present. I have thought about this book and the significance of this new principal sharing it with us. I am left with the hope that she will help to balance the district’s intense focus on academics with the joy and beauty of learning, especially for these K-2 children, something many of us lose as we go through school and enter adulthood.

For many adults, like myself, we have internalized the notion that life must move quickly in order to feel or be accomplished. Children do not have this notion until we teach it to them.  In a recent interview with Tami Simon, founder of Sounds True publishing house, Tara Sophia Mohr described how she learned to manage her inner critic by having “to recover from education.”  She put words to my experience.  I realized that starting my mindfulness practice two years ago was when I started my recovery from education. Much of my struggle with my inner critic and self-acceptance stems from the false belief that the more education I received, the more tasks I took on, the higher level job titles I earned, the more worthy I was. This type of thinking is promoted in schools through the ways in which we are evaluated, labeled, grouped, and awarded or denounced. We are barraged with messages of our worthiness perpetuated by a society that cannot seem to move out of the industrial aged concept of education, or as Paulo Freire has termed the banking concept.  We still view students as passive receptacles in need of being filled with knowledge rather than creators or active participants of knowledge and ideas.  Sure, there has been reform and push back against this concept, but it is deeply ingrained in our history of education.  The institution of schools has changed very little in the past century.

I was one of those children striving to be the best receptacle, to belong and be accepted in a society that valued educational success. I thought achieving in education was my only path to significance.  It is sad to look back and see that I lived a life grasping for significance or worthiness.  It was not until I achieved a doctorate in education that I considered I may be intelligent.  After passing my dissertation hearing, I drove 3 hours from Boston University back home to New York crying like a hurt little child. I could not believe after 7 years of hard labor that I finally accomplished this strenuous goal. I repeatedly said in the midst of salty tears, “Maybe now I am smart.”  The cost of my schooling was a deep loss of self.  Who had I become besides a receptacle with many degrees?  Now, in recovery from education, I am deliberately practicing slowing down and being present, hoping to bring compassion to myself, my children and the field of education.

As I have shared in my previous posts, I have done a deep dive into self-compassion.  My hope is to bring compassion practice into schools and into homes. I do not want my children (and I see it already) questioning their worthiness because of our intense focus on academic achievement.  It’s a tough balance because I want them to feel school is meaningful and worth their effort, but I do not want them to deny their gifts if not nurtured in school.  I want them to wait and experience the beauties of life.  I understand gaining academic knowledge is incredibly important but the way in which we expose children to the experience of formal learning affects their sense of worthiness, their identity, their efficacy and ultimately their acceptance of self.  I believe in schools and the intent to support the literacy of our society.  However, I believe, as Paulo Freire has written extensively about, that we must not just read the word but read the world.  In a way, this is what that picture book was promoting: Parents, pause and let your child and yourself read the world in this moment. This is a deeply meaningful form of education, of gaining and creating knowledge.

Mindfulness practice has reminded me of my purpose for becoming a teacher–to help young people read the world and find the courage to share their perspectives.  While my grasping  led me to pursue more education and eventually leave teaching, my recovery has supported my slow re-entrance. I have become an advocate for balancing out the intense focus on academics, which now begins in kindergarten, with learning the skills of compassion for self and others.  It is time we create school environments that teach children how to accept themselves and others, flaws and all.  School promotes perfectionism, which can never be achieved. Let’s promote the reality of being humans who will inevitably make mistakes. We must help children (and adults) relate to their experiences with tenderness, kindness and an openness to learning from the experience. These day you can find many schools promoting a growth mindset (see Carol Dweck’s work), the belief that failure is a part of learning (a very simplified definition of growth mindset). This is wonderful, but if children do not know how to move past a fixed mindset (one in which children believe they are good or bad at something after the first try), nothing has changed.  Teaching children the skills of self-compassion can support children’s and adults’ ability to truly accept, investigate and learn from their mistakes.

My hope is to begin supporting this change by bringing compassion cultivation to teachers and administrators. We as adults, as parents, and as teachers can learn to relate to our experiences with compassion so that we may live a fuller life, one where we feel worthy and significant regardless of our education or employment status. We can then model for and teach our children and students these skills of compassion, so they may learn earlier to truly accept themselves.  And this is my recovery from education, my new journey of learning to wait and read the world.

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