I was listening to a podcast the other morning on the way to work and I had to keep pausing it as I tried to write down what I was hearing. It was a conversation between Dan Harris and Sharon Salzberg. Sharon was talking about empathy and compassion.
Sharon stated that empathy is the resonance, the sensing of stress or difficulty and it can lead to many different things. Empathy can lead to overwhelm or blame but it can also lead to compassion.
She said that compassion implies a stability of attention, that we are not going to fall into it or get overwhelmed. It implies a balance of caring for self and other. Compassion implies wisdom or intelligence understanding that its not all up to me.
I was really struck by this conversation and I feel that it strongly resonates with the work we do as teachers. There are the days that empathy overwhelms me. The days when I throw my hands up, have no idea how to proceed and begin to shut down because the job seems impossible. I know that many people I work with have most likely gone down this same path. This can happen for so many reasons but primarily I think it is happening because many walls have been put up based on fears and avoidance. It is not that the teachers do not have empathy for their students, its that they lack the mental health background needed to meet these students’ needs. On top of that their perceptions of the children and of what is happening around them are clouded by biases that they are not yet even able to see or admit to. So now we have these adults who are acting out of empathy as well as misunderstanding and lack of specific skills. This does not mean they are not good teachers. It does not mean they don’t care for their students but it does mean that they are overwhelmed, often blaming others and having a really difficult time seeing and admitting to their own racial biases and exploring how those biases are effecting what they do from moment to moment.
I think about myself and my own practice. I know that I want to explore my own biases. I want to do better by my students and I know that it is not about them and their need to change but about me and how I show up each moment. Am I willing to open myself up?
I also know that when compassion arises from my empathy that is when I am in the flow. That is when I use reflective listening, acknowledging students’ feelings. Its when I stop trying to control and instead I begin to co-regulate with a student. Its when I let go of everything else, when I trust that my colleagues have the other students and I commit myself to the moment with the one student in crisis.
I wish I lived in compassion more often. It feels amazing to be there and to see your impact on a student. I know other teachers feel compassion. I think our school needs to find a way to tap into our moments of compassion and use that as a way to bring us all together, as a way for us to begin to open up and be vulnerable and start critically examining why we as individuals and as a community are not living in compassion more of our days.