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Compassion and Empathy: School Climate Essentials

EducationWorld is committed to bringing educators the practical tools they need to make good decisions, engage in effective leadership and implement strategies that work. To further this commitment, we have formed a content partnership with Stenhouse Publishers. EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts as part of this collaboration. Check back frequently as we feature additional excerpts from Stenhouse titles.

The following excerpt comes from Chapter 1 of 55 Teaching Dilemmas: Ten Powerful Solutions to Almost Any Classroom Challenge, by Kathy Paterson (Pembroke Publishers, 2005; distributed in the U.S. by Stenhouse Publishers).

This excerpt suggests easy ways in which educators can build compassion and empathy into their everyday routines, in order to benefit colleagues, students, the larger school climate and even themselves. See other excerpts from this book: Defusing Power Struggles and Stress Management and Self-Care.

Active Compassion

Have you ever noticed that when students are distraught, they often go to one particular teacher in the school? Are you that teacher? Consider this scenario:

Mrs. May always had the Grade 6 girls in her room—before school, at noon, and after school. In an attempt to find out why, another teacher stood quietly behind the open door to Mrs. May’s room during several of these “gatherings.” What she discovered was that Mrs. May would stop whatever she was doing, sit quietly, and give her full attention to the girls and their “tales of woe.” Then she would offer support and concern. What the interested teacher did not hear was Mrs. May offering solutions to the girls’ problems. It seemed that with Mrs. May’s guidance, the girls usually figured these out on their own. The teacher was witnessing active compassion. She vowed to improve her own skills in that area.

Ten Ways to Show Active Compassion

  • Provide encouragement all the time. Cultivate positive expectations for others and share these with them.
  • Smile, and mean it, and hug appropriately, then couple this with words of encouragement or positive reinforcement.
  • Be courteous to all your students all the time, and promote courteous behavior in the classroom and school.
  • Do whatever is necessary to make each student feel safe in your room and with you. For example, leave a door open or be careful not to sit too close.
  • Allow your students to take ownership of their learning, that is, involve them in decisions that affect them. Don’t be afraid to take a risk by giving them the “power” to make decisions.
  • Cultivate a deep appreciation of others by taking time to get to know them, asking carefully thought-out questions, and listening carefully to their answers. Develop the ability to sense how others are feeling by closely studying body language.
  • Maintain your temper and a calmness of mind even when faced with chaos or an explosive situation.
  • Respect students’ friendships. Allow friends to sit together at least some of the time or make positive comments about the friendships.
  • Keep an eye out for anyone who seems to be suffering in any way, perhaps a student looking unhappy or a colleague looking stressed. Try to help, perhaps by being an active listener.
  • Examine all situations, such as playground squabbles or in-class disagreements between peers, as objectively as possible; then make a decision based on the best interests of all.


Have you ever wished you felt less annoyed by and more genuinely concerned about your students or colleagues? Consider this scenario:


About Stenhouse Publishers

Stenhouse publishes professional development books and videos by teachers and for teachers. Their titles cover a range of content areas -- from literacy and mathematics to science, social studies, the arts, and environmental education -- as well as a variety of topics, including classroom management, assessment, and differentiation.

The eleven-year-old girl left the principal’s office in tears. A teacher overheard her explain to a waiting friend: “She doesn’t understand. She says she does, but she doesn’t. I mean, she answered the phone twice when I was trying to explain. All she said was that it would be OK, and I know it won’t be OK. How did she get to be principal anyway?”

Ten Ways to Show Empathy

  • Begin by getting to know your students as individuals so that teacher–student learning is important to them and, if necessary, adapted for them. In this way, your expectations will be aligned with their needs.
  • Treat each student with dignity and respect and expect the same in return.
  • Practice empathetic listening, listening in order to improve the welfare of the speaker. Pay attention to nuances, nonverbal communication, and body language. Consider what is not said. Listen for both words and feelings.
  • Paraphrase content of a conversation and reflect your own feelings.
  • When someone is confiding in you, listen rather than interrupting with “good advice.”
  • When listening empathetically to a single student, orient your body to the speaker, maintain eye contact, lean slightly forward, and try to soften your voice when you respond.
  • Ask yourself, Am I responding in a way that is best for the person? How you say things is as important as what you say.
  • When talking one-to-one with a student, if unsure about the problem or its underlying causes or confused by the student’s words, make an educated guess and proceed, rather than giving up or continually saying, “I don’t understand.”
  • Treat others as you yourself would like to be treated. This maxim should be the Golden Rule of teaching.
  • Adopt a few empathetic responses that will enable you to respond sincerely and without judgment, at least until you have all the facts. Consider these: “Oh, this is so sad,” “Bummer,” “That is not good.” Also, make noncommittal responses. (It seems that … It appears to me that …)


Last updated: 9/22/2016

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