First published in Teacher Plus, March 2024

On your way to school, an aggressive driver curses you and overtakes your car. As you reach the school gates, a parent is yelling at a child for having forgotten his science project. When you head upstairs, you stumble and drop a sheaf of papers. Two high-schoolers scramble downstairs without pausing to help. As you enter the staffroom, a colleague recommends a pimple cream you might use. You open your laptop and there’s an email from the coordinatorsaying that students in your grade 6 geometry class are too loud and boisterous.

During the first period, when you’re working with positive and negative integers with grade 7, Vikas, a naughty student acts up yet again. He flings a notebook in your direction, and as you duck to avoid it, you stub your toe on a desk. While most students look up in alarm, Vikas and his two buddies smirk. You heave a sigh. Though nothing is terribly wrong with your life, it could be a lot better if the world was a more compassionate place.

And, as teachers we owe it to our students, to society and to ourselves to sow the seeds of compassion. However, as the above anecdote illustrates, it’s not as simple as adding a couple of lessons on compassion to the curriculum. Sociologists, Peter Kaufman and Janine Schipper, point out in Teaching with Compassion, that teaching about compassion doesn’t imply that we’re “teaching with compassion.” Only if we model compassion, in the way we treat our students, our colleagues, and ourselves can we expect children to emulate it.

What is compassion and does it differ from empathy? In his book, The War for Kindness, Stanford psychologist, Jamil Zaki, delineates the shades and textures of these emotions. Cognitive empathy refers to understanding another’s feelings, whereas emotional empathy involves sharing another’s feelings. And, empathic concern or compassion is emotional empathy coupled with a desire to alleviate another’s pain or suffering. Further, rather than being unchangeable or fixed, empathy and compassion are skills that can be cultivated.

            As Kaufman and Schipper remind us, teaching with compassion is “always a work in progress.” Further, as there are myriad ways in which we may exhibit compassion, be it in our thoughts, words, or deeds, there is no single or right method by which teachers may infuse more compassion into their classrooms. However, Kaufman and Schipper offer eight principles or practices which teachers may incorporate into their teaching to create safe, sanguine, and stimulating learning spaces.

            The first practice is to approach teaching, each day, with a beginner’s mind. Instead of being reined in by assumptions, biases, or boredom, a beginner’s mind is open to exploring, experimenting, and expanding. By retaining a child-like wonder, we communicate to students that we value their contributions and that their perspectives matter. Further, when we adopt a beginner’s mind and exhibit an openness to learning, we model lifelong learning for our students. We also don’t hold on to resentments and grudges based on previous experiences and allow each student to shine afresh.

Following the famed Golden Rule wherein we treat others the way we would like to be treated sets the stage for a compassionate classroom. Of course, we also need to put ourselves in our students’ shoes to understand their points of view. As Paulo Freire warns in the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, when people who are ‘subjugated’ achieve “some degree of power,” they need to “actively resist” perpetuating cycles of oppression. Reflecting on our school days to when we felt scared, vulnerable, or humiliated by a teacher may help us treat our students respectfully. Further, as teachers are all too human, we may disparage or hurt students inadvertently. To mitigate the impact of these stressors on our students, we may encourage them to approach us, both within and outside the classroom, if they want to discuss any issue. We also need to reassure them that they will be heard in a non-judgmental and safe space.

            No doubt, teaching is a stressful job and teachers face many hurdles. From recalcitrant students, to unreasonable parents, to pressure from management to produce stellar results, often with a paucity of resources, teaching comes with its own trials and tribulations. But rather than shy away from them, Kaufman and Schipper urge us to learn from adverse experiences. And that includes having self-compassion for ourselves when the going gets tough. Having compassion for yourself doesn’t make you selfish in the least. On the contrary, only if you are compassionate towards yourself, will you be able to extend it to others. Further, when we are overcome by strong negative emotions, we maystep back from ourselves and observe our emotions non-judgmentally, knowing that all feelings are transient. Each time we do this, our emotions gradually loosen their grip over us.

            Probably one of the most challenging aspects of teaching with compassion is to embody humility. Though teachers are presumed to be repositories of knowledge, we always need to put students’ “growth, development, and well-being” over and above ourselves. That means leaving our egos at the threshold when we enter our classrooms. When a student asks a question that we’re unsure of, rather than seeing it as a threat to our expertise, we need to acknowledge that everyone’s knowledge, including the teacher’s, has limits. As we research and find out the answer, we model how learning is a continual process.When we make a mistake, we need to acknowledge and apologize gracefully. And, if a situation warrants, there’s no shame in revealing our vulnerabilities. For example, sharing that you failed an exam yet managed to do fine in life, may be just the balm that a dejected student needs.

            As a compassionate teacher, you also need to keep a pulse on the chemistry of the classroom, making sure that students are comfortable, alert, and participative. You need to focus both on individual students and group dynamics. Knowing student names and something unique about each one goes a long way in fostering bonds between the teacher and pupils. Likewise, try to promote interactions between students so that everyone knows one another. Keep your antennae turned on to spot signs of exclusion or bullying. To create an inclusive space, incorporate aspects of students’ identities, voices, backgrounds, and culture into your teaching. As inclusion is an ever-evolving process, periodically reflect on your practices to see if all students feel welcome.

            Kaufman and Schipper also recommend that we listen with intention. This entails not just paying attention to students’ words but also noting their body language, tone, and most importantly their silences. Deep listening, according to the authors, requires us to be still and silent at two levels. When a student speaks, we don’t talk but remain “externally silent.” Additionally, when they talk, we also remain “internally silent” by not engaging with our own thoughts or responses. If some students don’t speak up, we need to delve deeper to understand the source of their silence. Do we need more small-group discussions for the introverted students to open up? Are some students silent because they feel marginalized in some way? And in what ways are we complicit in contributing to their suffering, albeit in unintentional ways?

            Another practice that you may weave into your teaching and student interactions is to “hold space.” Kaufman and Schipper aver that this practice propels students to grow in unique and diverse ways. While you may guide them every now and then, you also allow them to trust their instincts and “inner wisdom,”decisions and pick themselves up when they fail. To hold space compassionately, we need to let go of dogmas and straitjacketed thinking and be open to having our perspectives challenged. As teachers, we also need to recognize the individuality of each student and respect their varying needs and developmental trajectories.             Finally, the authors also coax us to “teach like the sun,” radiating light and warmth, while being “a stable, consistent and predictable presence” for every student. By following these different compassionate practices, we may nourish our children, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. Helping students believe in themselves is probably the greatest gift we may give them. As Kaufman and Schipper note, we may start teaching with compassion to enhance our students’ experience of school and learning; however, in the process we could also enrich our “lives as teachers.”

(The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know & blogs at