Strategies for Educators to Live, Teach, and Lead With Compassion

“I'm sorry” is a phrase I frequently hear from students during distance learning. It starts off a list of typical high school apologies for things like missing scheduled time to meet, not completing homework assignments or attending class, and forgetting to do something. However, the list also includes apologies for things I never heard before during in-person learning: having a headache, eye strain, or fatigue from too much screen time; losing track of time; forgetting the day of the week; not feeling motivated to complete work independently; and not being “good” at distance learning. “I am sorry I just am not good at this” is what I hear the most. This has initiated conversations with every student I support about how we never had any training for this model of learning. This year, I’ve realized that what all my students need is compassion.

Compassion is at the heart of how we as educators build the framework for a successful academic year and remain connected to our educational identity, our colleagues, our students, and the entire school community. Compassion is more than just sympathy or empathy. It is unconditional kindness, caring for others, and a passion to take action to help, all while exuding warmth and love. With compassion, it is possible for schools to become stronger, more resilient, and more connected than even before distance learning and the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as we’re well into the fall semester, is a good time to take a pause and think about how compassion relates to members of the school community.

Compassion for Self

For us to have compassion for others, we need to have compassion for ourselves. This may be the hardest form of compassion to develop since many of us who entered education did so with the selfless desire to make the world better for others. But without self-compassion, we risk burnout or disillusionment.

Distance learning poses a challenge to many educators, from Zoom fatigue and technological issues to worries of students becoming disengaged. Hybrid or blended models can present just as many, if not more, challenges, as educators synchronize online and in-person learning. While it may be easy to focus on the negatives of the situation and lament a lack of normalcy, it is important to remember our resiliency and ability to persevere. While there may be times that we find ourselves consumed with self-pity, it is important to remain compassionate to ourselves.

  • Practice gratitude. Start each day by acknowledging or writing down several things for which you are thankful.
  • Spoil yourself guilt-free. Do activities that bring you joy. Set aside personal time each day to engage in a hobby, read, or simply relax.
  • Engage in self-care activities. Taking care of yourself is critical to ensure you bring your best self to your work. This can include eating well, working out, meditating, doing yoga, or gardening.

Compassion for Colleagues

Having compassion for colleagues can help the entire school run smoothly. Treating fellow teachers and staff members with kindness and understanding not only models this behavior to students but also sets the foundation of creating a caring school culture.

Many educators have had concerns about students’ academic regression because of the challenges of distance learning. Last spring, teachers were not always able to cover as much of the curriculum remotely, and students were not always able to complete the same amount of work as they would have in-person. This means that students who started classes in the fall may not be as well prepared for the next level or course sequence as in typical years. While it may be easy to become frustrated at the previous teachers for not teaching the students all they needed to know, we must find compassion for our fellow colleagues.

  • Acknowledge the good in others. Everyone appreciates recognition, whether it is delivered privately in an email or note or publicly through a compliment bulletin board or a shared virtual document.
  • Collaborate and work together. While it may be difficult to build in chunks of time to collaborate into an already full schedule, this can happen on a smaller scale by using department meetings to strategize issues, developing formal or informal mentorship opportunities/support groups, or using virtual or in-person instructional rounds.
  • Have fun together. Laughter can bring people together, and it is even more important during times of stress. It may be helpful to identify ways that faculty and staff can socialize, whether it is a virtual coffee hour or book groups online.

Compassion for Students

Increased screen time, social isolation, feelings of loneliness, and possibly challenging relationships at home have the potential to have a lasting impact on students. According to Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect by Matthew D. Lieberman, social isolation and loneliness are associated with lower  tests scores and an inability to focus on academic work, as well as increased mental health struggles. During times of financial crises, domestic violence cases have historically increased and such exposure to violence is associated with an increased  risk of psychological, social, emotional, and behavioral struggles for students.

These factors present a concerning case for student well-being this school year. We must anticipate additional mental health challenges and be prepared to support our students. Having a student-focused lens of compassion is the crucial first step in creating a nurturing and supportive virtual or in-person school climate.

  • Validate student struggles. Provide affirmation that their feelings and challenges are real. When they express worry, you can say, “I understand this is hard for you. I am here for you. We will get through this together.”
  • See the whole child. Many students feel like their academic success measures their worth as a person and this can impact their self-esteem, especially if they struggle academically during distance learning. It is helpful to look at all aspects of a student’s life, not only the academic, and to highlight their strengths.
  • Forge positive connections. Get to know students—use reflective journals and get-to-know-you prompts and allow creative choices in assignments. Even with distance learning, advisory programs, clubs, and extracurricular activities can meet to help foster supportive relationships.

Compassion for the School Community

During distance learning, families, parents, and guardians take on an even more active role supporting and teaching their children. The question becomes, how can we continue the solid partnership throughout the entire school year?

  • Dismantle barriers. Identify the obstacles to all students achieving success. Some students might not be able to receive academic, emotional, and behavioral supports, or the existing supports might not be enough.
  • Become stronger together. Professional development and trainings around implicit biases, mental health, and strategies to support students’ academic, emotional, and behavioral well-being will help teachers have a successful school year.
Leading and teaching with compassion does not need to take an extensive amount of time or require any large changes to the curriculum or structure of the school. While these strategies may seem simple and may only take a couple of minutes to implement, they will make a positive impact in the lives of the students, their families, and the community. Guided by an ethos of compassion, schools can continue the school year with a mindset and action plan that benefits everyone.
Carolyn A. Curtis
Carolyn A. Curtis

Carolyn A. Curtis is a school social worker at Fryeburg Academy in Fryeburg, Maine. 


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