Saturday, October 4, 2014

Finding Compassion - Affect and Education

At the beginning of The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Fitzgerald, while reflecting on how advice from his father relates to his past summer in New York, writes: “...all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had...Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.”  To paraphrase in three pieces:

  • Those of us who live lives we enjoy should all be grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given by the people and the climate(s) we’ve known.
  • The first step towards believing in and helping others work towards their full potential is to understand them, empathize with them and believe in who they can become instead of chastising, criticizing, or trying to correct who they are.
  • It’s a fundamental, ego-driven flaw to think that behaving the way we do is the right way to behave.  Even if we are in charge of the rules, and can go about dismissing people and/or punitively controlling others, we have to see that this is ego on our part, not actual correctness.  

Now I’ll put it in school language:

  • Educators wouldn’t be educators if we hadn’t had at least one person who believed in us help us to find success in schools. I’d even bet that most of us have had multiple people at key moments in our lives take an interest in who we were and what we needed in order to grow.  We have to realize how lucky we are to have had these people and these moments.  We are not necessarily biologically awesome so much as beneficiaries of our environments.
  • We always have to believe that our students can become forever increasingly amazing people and students.  
  • Judging a student instead of supporting him/her immediately stops the process we’re in school for...becoming educated.  
  • Educators have endless amounts of things to learn.  It’s fully flawed and egocentric to believe that we are always right.  The more we’re willing to grow, the more our students will be able to learn.  
  • The way we design our schools, classrooms, and curricula isn’t flawless; it would be detrimentally arrogant to think otherwise.  The more we are willing to listen, accommodate and adapt, the more everyone can grow.  
  • We can try to be taskmasters who whip (proverbially) schools, teachers, and students into shape, but that is not an atmosphere that’s at all conducive to optimal learning.  

With this on my mind this morning, I watched Alex Shevrin's (@shevtech) video on having unconditional positive regard for students.

Yes, we could spend our time saying that her approach is excessive and that we have many more students who’d need that level of support than we can manage.  We could also say that we aren’t social workers and that we just couldn’t engage at that level of wraparound care for our students...and we’d be mostly right.  The logistics of public schools do often keep us from being able to - logistically and financially - meet all of the needs of some of our neediest students in ways that Alex might be able to in her small, alternative school setting.  

What I do know is that not being able to control all of the factors in their lives shouldn’t stop us from respecting the students enough to think carefully about the things that are in our purview.   This is like the failed argument - at least it’s failed in my opinion - that poverty keeps students from being able to learn.  Yes, it makes it tougher at times, but if schools are doing our part, progress happens.  We should be inspired by thoughts like hers instead of just brushing them aside as implausible. Always keep in mind:

  • The way we communicate with students - before, during and outside of classroom time - plays a huge role in the way they see their ability to succeed in their classes.
  • We must ensure that we ask things of students because they’re good for students, not because it’s the way we like it.  Our students’ variability must push us to be as flexible as possible with our acceptance of their personal journeys to proficiency and mastery.
  • We have all worked on plans to help students who struggle with literacy, numeracy, organization and memorization.  Are we ready to modify our rules and regulations to accommodate those who either haven’t yet learned to behave “properly” or who come from a different value system?
  • In a world full of research about the failure of programs that include retention, detention, suspension, homework zeroes, punitive summer schools and power struggles, have we moved forward toward newer ideas such as restorative justice and standards-based-grading?

What’s left is now to admit that being patient and flexible isn’t going to help in all situations any more than becoming angry, frustrated, and punitive.   Asking them to change who they are as children and teens isn’t any more realistic than suggesting that their future employers will be willing to put up with their attitudes and defiance.  

If you have thoughts about what works and what doesn’t, please feel free to comment here and/or join #edchatma on Tues, October 7 at 9pm to discussion affective education.


  1. Great post (although it's looking like the wrong video embedded?). Love to see that others are thinking about to incorporate unconditional positive regard.I especially appreciate your point about how detention/suspension/punitive discipline are not working - yet we haven't moved forward to something new.

    To your point that our school is pretty unique in the way we can wrap students - that is absolutely true. I wanted to offer a couple of pieces of writing I've done on how to translate our work to a public school setting:

    On trauma-informed strategies in the classroom:

    On changing our language to communicate unconditional positive regard:

    Keep the thoughts and questions coming; it's awesome to see educators like you critically thinking about how we can better support all students.

  2. Alex - Thank you so much for engaging here. Like I said above, we may not be able to replicate everything, but your efforts paint a clear direction for publics to travel. Well done.