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Steve Haberlin's picture
Steve Haberlin is an assistant professor of education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. He holds a Ph.D. with a specialization in elementary education from the University of South Florida. His...
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Nurturing Compassion in the Classroom: Perhaps the Most Important Content

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, has said that the key to transforming the world for the better would be to teach compassion in the classroom. I couldn’t agree more.

When considering many of society’s problems, they often stem from a lack of having the ability to care for each other, to understand each other, to accept that we have different views, and to empathize with each other’s situation (if you doubt my words, watch the next presidential race).

Academic content is certainly important in the classroom, but if we consider it within the grand scheme of things, its importance drops off. Yes, we want students to be able to read, write, and think logically and critically. These intellectual abilities will serve them well in life, helping them make sound decisions, problem-solve, and achieve goals.

However, what good is developing a highly critical thinker who cares nothing for others?  What good is it to have a student hone his or her literary and mathematical skills if they lack the ability to place themselves in other’s shoes? Their goals and apparent contributions will be completely self-serving, and maybe even detrimental to society.

I will never forget the time, a fifth-grade gifted student stood up after I asked the class to share its dreams for the future, and proudly proclaimed: “I want to create a virus that wipes out half the planet.”

Get my point?  Intelligence without compassion is dangerous. It’s a finely tuned machine without a steering wheel, a moral compass. In Buddhism, they refer to this as the two wings of a bird: compassion and wisdom. Both are necessary.

Weaving compassion into the existing academic curriculum does not involve a complete overhaul; it does require a paradigm shift, though. Countless social-emotional learning and moral/character development programs being used in schools represent a shift towards educating the whole child. But what if this shift is not occurring at a teacher’s school? What are they to do?

I think the place to begin is in the classroom itself, with small acts of compassion. The teacher must model compassion in every action and word. This is no small task given today’s pressures and frustrations in public education. But each day, the teacher should strive towards this goal, knowing that students are constantly watching and observing our every deed. We must embody the compassionate transformation we seek to inspire in the students. While cliche, it boils down to the famous saying by Gandhi, "be the change we want to see in the world.”

In my next blog, I’ll address some specific strategies teachers can use in the classroom to build compassion.