Tag Archives: Students

Building Peace: Compassion is for the Community

Beginning in late spring 2016, I started a post series called “Building Peace”. Two years later, I collected my thoughts into a book with the same title and have kept up the series periodically since. It has been over a year since I have specifically titled a post in this way but peacebuilding is never far from my mind.

If you’re familiar with my work, you know that I have been interested in compassion for a long time and that my views about what compassion is (and isn’t) have grown, evolved, and shifted. The word compassion has become increasingly popular and as a result, it has also lost much of its intended meaning. The consequence of diluted meaning is that we think we’re all doing just fine behaving just the way we are . . . when in fact we are not.

Let’s start with some definitions.

With a little help from my favourite dictionary

According to Merriam-Webster, my dictionary of choice since reading Kory Stamper’s truly hilarious account Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, the meaning of compassion is “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it”. In my personal experience, compassion is often linked with both care and empathy but these also have very different meanings. Empathy is the more nuanced of the two and Merriam-Webster provides two definitions:

1the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner
also: the capacity for this
2: the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it

So, compassion means understanding someone’s distress and desiring to alleviate it. Empathy means, in colloquial terms, putting yourself in the shoes of another person to understand their place and perspective. Empathy means that you need to understand. Compassion means that you need to act.

Who is compassion for?

Not too long ago I wrote about why people choose not to act. I have also written that compassion is a practice and that it takes work and time and, significantly, the desire to do good or do what is right. I have tended to focus on compassion between individuals and through this focus, I think I’ve missed some fundamental points. This post attempts to take a more nuanced view of compassion than I have taken in the past.

A few conversations with several people, some reflections on religious texts, and a Theory of Knowledge lesson on consequentialist ethics (among others) has led me to an idea that differs from what I have written previously. Rather than being between and for individuals, compassion is for the community.

A scenario

Jane is an experienced teacher new to my school. She spends most of her time putting together colourful documents and showing them off to others. She misses planning meetings with some colleagues (although attends others), comes to work over the weekend to mark papers (although takes weeks to return anything to her students), and repeats herself frequently in conversation. Jane operates on a highly rigid structure that she is proud of and claims works for her, but she seems constantly overwhelmed. Despite this, she volunteers for additional tasks and amends work that others have created, leading to yet more colourful documents. It is not uncommon for Jane to ask how a colleague approached a particular lesson only to launch into a detailed explanation of how she, Jane, redesigned each of the resources that had been previously created for collective use.

What should a compassionate colleague do with Jane?

You may answer that the colleague should mentor her, talk with her, share their own resources, or offer suggestions about different ways of working. Maybe they should partner with Jane on her projects and split up the work, or take on some of her tasks.

Maybe our compassionate colleague should do all of these things, but they will soon learn that Jane will just continue along the way Jane always has. So they could choose to invest time in Jane but they already have evidence that Jane is unlikely to take any advice. Nevertheless, she might need someone to talk to. Okay, let’s provide a listening ear here and there, perhaps over lunch.

But what if the right thing to do with Jane at this point is to recognise that Jane has made a choice to resist help? Doing this allows the reallocation of time to those in my community who might actually benefit.

This is where we run into problems: It’s relatively easy for us to identify a specific and obviously suffering person and do something for them that will make us feel good. However, doing so misses the fundamental point that there is much more that we don’t see. By devoting our time and energy to a single individual, we miss a far greater responsibility, which is that to our community.

Reframing compassion

I argue here that the community needs to be highlighted and emphasised in our discourse on compassion. Far too often, we devote our time, energy, and resources to relatively few people at the detriment to and neglect of others around us. There are many reasons why we might do this: ego in feeling useful, the sunk cost fallacy in which we’ve already given one person so much of our time that we don’t want to give up, and fear of being wrong about our decision to help someone in the first place. The point remains the same: We have a responsibility to the communities we have chosen to be part of.

Let’s consider three items to consider:
1. What does this mean and how does this work?
2. Wait – when did I choose to be part of a community?
3. Wait – I definitely did not choose to be part of a community.

What does this mean and how does this work?

If we consider compassion as part of our responsibility to a community, this means that we need to look much more broadly than we are accustomed to. It means being aware of those around us, and not only when they’re upset in the ways that we are used to seeing people upset. This varies significantly by culture, which is another piece of this puzzle. Rather, we need to see one another to know each other, and through doing so, we need to cultivate connections with others even in the smallest ways.

Considering ourselves compassionate means that we are available for those around us before they reach the point of needing to be held. There is a great deal of research on the importance of social connection that I will not reiterate here, but do take a look. Here’s a link to start you off.

Compassion is, therefore, an attitude that we can take in our interactions and approaches to others at any time. I’ve written at length about adopting principles as attitudes and I think this is an appropriate lens. If I am a compassionate person, this is the way I see the world. Choosing times to act compassionately while neglecting that principle at other times does not equate.

Wait – when did I choose to be part of a community?

I will focus on education here because this is a chosen realm in which I can actually say a thing or two. Even if you are not part of an educational community, please read on. I hope you will be able to apply what I say to your own context – and I’d really like to hear about it!

Let’s consider the people who work in schools, specifically people responsible for teaching and learning. This means administrators, teachers, teaching assistants, and support staff. These are the people who have specifically chosen to be in a school context. Regardless of the reason for that choice, all of these adults are responsible in some way for the teaching and learning that will help shape young people. They carry a duty to raise these young people in certain ways.

If it is evident that some people do not behave in accordance with the purposes and practices of a community, they should be asked to modify their behaviours or be invited to leave. They have entered into a social contract with these young people and are responsible for their end of it.

In the context of education, the primary responsibility of all of these adults is first to the students in their care. My actions should be framed around how a certain decision, special event, or daily occurrence will impact students. This means that when we think about compassion, we need to consider the overall impact of our actions on the community that exists to support students, not only the impact of one individual’s choice on another.

The purpose of this post is not to provide guidance on how to make choices but to point out our tendency to fixate on individual relationships and forget that we are actually part of something much bigger. The purpose of this post is to argue that we need to ask very different questions than we are in the habit of asking. Our concern should not stop with the recognition that an individual colleague or student is overwhelmed. Rather, it should extend to consider who else might be feeling similarly, why that is, and what we can do to create a better environment for all. This is what it means to reframe our discourse on compassion.

Wait – I definitely did not choose to be part of a community.

I agree that this is sometimes the case. We choose our friends, not our families, and many of us are born into a culture, heritage, ethnic group, or religious tradition (or some combination thereof). Even without a choice, the outcome is the same. If we want parts of our lives to work in certain ways, we are responsible for building that. Kant’s categorical imperative states that our behaviour should reflect what we wish to be universal law. A really simple way of putting it: If you do X, imagine a world in which everyone else does X.

My guess is that most people would prefer a world in which we actively look out for each other rather than invest our time and energy into one squeaky wheel. And my other guess is that there’s far more of the latter going on than the former. This is why we need to start asking different questions and making different choices.

So even if you did not choose to be part of a community, you are. As stated above, I do not believe that anyone should be forced into a community that they do not want to be part of. In the case of voluntary communities, you can leave at any time. Even involuntary communities are, to some extent and barring extremes, voluntary. Making the choice not to leave does not privilege any individual over the collective community fabric.

Compassion as peacebuilding

A long time ago, I identified building peace as the purpose of education. The linked post explains how I arrived at this view. Compassion is part of peacebuilding because it is with compassion that we relate to others in ways that recognise all parts of their humanity. In doing so, we also recognise our own.

From writer Susan Sontag:

“Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question of what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. If one feels that there is nothing ‘we’ can do — but who is that ‘we’? — and nothing ‘they’ can do either — and who are ‘they’ — then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.”

This is precisely why it is not enough to talk about, think about, and bandy about compassion. Being compassionate cannot be reserved for the easy and obvious moments and we cannot wait for someone else to show us what to do. If we are human and those around us are human, if we are part of a community, and if we actually cast a wide look around rather than fixating on one visible point . . . this is action. These are our actions. And acting in this way opens the possibilities of deeper connection, and a more peaceful and more just world.

Lake Bohinj, Slovenia – January 2020

Reflections on Learning

During our last class before the holidays, my grade 12 students and I talked about getting old. Well, older. I mentioned something that had happened six years ago and we were all taken aback for a moment. Six years ago I was still living in Rochester, New York where I grew up; six years ago, my students were in grade 6. Six years is six years but somehow, it seems like a much bigger change for them. Six years ago, my students were kids. Now, they’re young people who are preparing to go into the world and do something. But not just yet. Let’s not rush things.

I’m reflecting on this right now because I have a birthday coming up and it required me to change the tagline that appears just below the title of this blog. Until about 10 minutes ago, the tagline read, “Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place.” Now it reads, “Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place.”

Don’t panic: I’m still a teacher.

But yes, I’m turning 30 next month and any birthday is a cause for reflection. Last year I wrote a list of what I’d learned in my twenties and it definitely reflects how I was thinking at the time I wrote it. A few months later, I wrote a letter to my brother with some life advice and I like that one much better. It takes some elements of the first list and frames the ideas in actionable ways – I like that. The difference between these two lists, five months apart, also reflects what I would like to highlight here: the importance of perpetual learning.


I can point to much that has changed for me over time, but an essential constant has been the desire to learn and to grow. There has always been a genuine excitement over recognising something new or forming new connections. I’ve never been afraid of what I don’t know and I’ve never been deluded into thinking there’s nothing left to find out. This is also why I’m more than happy to reread books. There’s plenty out there, sure, but you really never step into the same river twice. (My credit to Disney’s Pocahontas here, but further research indicated that Heraclitus said it first.)

Last week, my Theory of Knowledge students gave oral presentations on the topic of ignorance. One student concluded by saying that ignorance leads to growth. When my co-teacher asked what she meant by “growth” she replied, “I don’t know, maybe learning.” Yes, exactly. Ignorance opens doors to learning. I have always known this but I have not always had the language to express it.

Growing up, my parents had a pretty clear policy on things we children didn’t know: Go find out. We had dictionaries and encyclopedias and after some time, we also had the Internet. If you didn’t know it, you looked it up. If you didn’t understand your findings, you asked. I only remember being turned down once for an answer. I was thirteen and my poor dad, looking distinctly uncomfortable, told me, “Go ask your mother.” I did and it was a good thing.

I have never been a stranger to learning. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve taken the important step of being able to appreciate when I am wrong. In many ways, being an educator has taught me this. As a student, I could see right through my teachers, especially new ones, and I knew exactly when they didn’t know what they were desperately trying to demonstrate that they knew. As a teacher myself, I understand the necessity of being both genuine and vulnerable with my students. I expect the same of them, after all, and at the end of the day we are partners in this thing called education. (Schooling is a different matter and, in keeping with the above, I am very open about this, too.)


Learning is deeply personal and I understand that. When I think back to what I wanted out of life six years ago, to return to the conversation with my grade 12 students, I’m stunned by how much has changed. I am in awe of what I have learned.

I am doing almost none of what I expected to be doing, but much of what I dreamed of doing. I have so much more than I thought I would, but very little of what I had wanted. I now see myself in ways I never imagined were possible because I didn’t know they existed, but I am not who I thought I would be. And I know there is more to become.

This is not to say one is all good and the other is all bad, certainly not. Rather, this is to say that I have lived in varying shades of black, white, and gray – at times, more gray or more black or more white. Shifting. Sometimes fluidly, sometimes with stark lines. In short, I have lived. I have learned.

I’m not particularly sentimental but I do grow nostalgic every now and then. For instance, the other day I looked up a friend from a former life. Just looked. But the same day, I picked up a book by an author I would have once passed over. Because you never know. Really.

In the words that Immanuel Kant took as the motto of Enlightenment, “Sapere aude. Dare to know.”

And millennia earlier from Socrates, “I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance.”

Indeed. And now I’ll return to my reading.

How Not to Teach About Homelessness

I recently learned about The World’s Big Sleep Out, which tags itself as “A Global Sleep Out to Call for an End to Global Homelessness”. I’ve linked it here not because I support this but so that you can read about it yourself. The post that follows is my reaction when I learned that my school on the equator would be promoting the outdoor sleepover as a service opportunity for students. (That this event will take place directly upon the conclusion of our equatorial school’s winter fair could be a blog post all on its own.)


Let’s imagine: Here on the equator it’s about 27° Celsius at all times. When the sun goes down and there’s a light wind, which is common at night, it’s quite pleasant. Our students will be sleeping on the tennis courts on the roof of our school. Snacks, games, and breakfast have been advertised as part of the event and I know that there are plans for a film to be shown in the theatre before bedtime.

For a student bonding experience, it sounds lovely.

As an event that is supposed to raise awareness about homelessness, it is shockingly irresponsible.

For context: We live in a country where homelessness is actively hidden. When I’ve taken informal polls in class, and I have done this as recently as last week, no one has seen a homeless person where we live. Considering the typical income level of expatriate students at an international school, this is not surprising. They are literally in parts of the city where, in all honesty, there probably are not any homeless people. Or at least, not at times when these students would be out and about. Homelessness, to these students, is invisible.

Pretending to care about an invisible problem does not make it visible.

When I asked the organiser of the event how she planned to address homelessness, because I didn’t see how a tropical sleepover on the tennis courts would do it, she seemed to think that sleeping outside was enough. I can almost understand this response if you’re somewhere uncomfortable, like on a narrow park bench or outside in the rain or snow. But that would still break down when you consider that anyone playing at being homeless, as our students would be, probably has appropriate outdoor gear, a belly full of food, and the knowledge that they’ll be heading to back to their comfortable home in a mere few hours.

Another area to consider is that many people who are homeless do not sleep on the street. Many stay in shelters for days at a time or stay itinerantly with friends or relatives. An additional area our students will not see is that people who are homeless own only what they can carry; our students will not understand this when they bring a change of clothes to the roof and leave everything else sitting at home. Likewise, people who are homeless often do not have access to clean toilets or showers; our students will not have this concern.

Furthermore, malnutrition contributes to poor health, which certainly will not come across during this sleep over. All of our students, unlike people who are homeless, have an address. However, lack of address often restricts or eliminates access to government programs and services, as well as the ability to apply for a job since it is required on applications. This obviously contributes to a lack of stability, which leads to unstable education, and stigmatisation continues the cycle.

Our students will not understand this from a tropical night on the school’s roof.

Yes, it is important to raise awareness about homelessness. One of my students recently wrote an article about Willing Hearts, a local organisation that provides meals for those who need them. As I suggested to the organiser of the sleepover, why not ask students to volunteer for the 5am breakfast shift so they can interact with people who they would never otherwise even see? (This suggestion was met with an excuse about wanting to enjoy her weekend. I dropped the subject.)

Teach about homelessness? Assuming you’re doing so in a responsible and truly caring way, yes.

But not like this. Please not like this.