Compassion is seeing a need for help, and helping; it is being thoughtful and kind; it is wanting to help, out of one’s own goodness.
Teaching is a compassionate career. There’s no two ways about it: we devote our working lives to improving others, but if you spend any length of time in any school, you will also see compassion everywhere that has nothing to do with contractual obligations.
I am so lucky to have spent the final year of my training and my NQT year in a school where compassion is commonplace. It is the norm to feel wanted and feel loved, and it’s been a delight to be a part of that team. No matter how your day has been, someone will be there with a listening ear and sometimes a cup of tea too. We have each other’s back.
I am also lucky to have been taught by some extremely compassionate individuals – they are the ones who immediately sprand to mind when I saw this writing prompt. Some of them read my blog, so I am really hoping they don’t mind these anonymised mentions!
My GCSE English teacher is sunlight in human form. She is one of the kindest people I know, both in and out of school. Hers is a universally acknowledged but quiet compassion: kind words whenever they are needed, gentle encouragement no matter the troubling scenario, conversations about books at times when I really needed to be pulled out of my own head. A quiet affirmation that I was not the only one in the world to have experienced ‘washing machine tummy’ when I had escaped from the hubbub of sixth form prom to be anxious away from the crowds.
She taught me when I didn’t know yet that my quietness would overtake me, and remained a support when it did. Her compassion in the classroom inspires me and my practice to this day.
It is really difficult to see an anxious pupil – I came across three during my training, one in each school. Every time, I wanted to take their worries and add them to my own, just so that they wouldn’t have to experience them anymore.
I don’t know how my French teachers put up with me sometimes, in all honesty. I was usually silent, tied up in panic after panic. But they were utterly heroic, always patient with me, they gave me time when that was all I needed to spill a few semi-fluent sentences, and they reminded me not to wring my hands and twist my sleeves quite so much! One of them gave up countless hours in my final year, talking me down from sky-high panic. I am certain that he had more important places to be, but I am forever grateful for those Monday afternoons. It wasn’t his job to look after me when I was so anxious, but I was somehow never anxious enough for CAMHS and structured support in the sixth form didn’t exist. He went above and beyond for me, showing an extraordinary level of compassion.
I had a history teacher who was quite similar.
When I first started to spiral with anxiety, I was very guarded. I kept it a secret, how much I was struggling, because I was so confused about how I felt and completely certain that no-one would let me go to university and become a teacher with a fledgling anxiety disorder in tow! Shows how misguided I was, and how much mental health stigma I inadvertently believed…
Challenging times are an entirely individual thing – just because one person has had it worse, doesn’t negate that you’re having a hard time yourself. Having completed a degree, I think I would now find A-level history coursework a walk in the park. But at the time it felt insurmountable. And at the same time, I was battling tri-weekly panics in French, university applications I didn’t feel worthy of, and a bereavement.
The aforementioned history teacher is possibly the most efficient person I have ever met (aspirationally one day I would like to match her efficiency!) and one of the busiest, yet when she detected a falter in my default ‘I’m fine’, she gently pushed until I agreed to meet to talk about what was on my mind. Her teaching timetable and my free periods did not have a single crossover. I thought that was game over, until she offered me her time before school – something I now appreciate all the more, knowing how sacrosanct a teacher’s morning time is! But she gave me her Friday morning on so many occasions.
So often in my sixth form experience I felt as though I was falling apart. The common room, bubbling with the excitement of adolescence, was sensory overload. Silent classrooms felt like they shone a spotlight on me and I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I did, however, sometimes have one safe bubble: my sociology class of six girls. It was a class shared between two teachers who challenged us, encouraged us, supported us and made us laugh. Those two seemed to cast a spell around their class. I was quiet but sometimes I could step out of that and feel normal again.
The times when this ease slipped and my resolve cracked, I was met with compassion. A laugh a minute is no good if tears can’t be dried too.
So you can see that I was raised up by compassion at a time in my life that was truly challenging. Undoubtedly this has shaped my views on the role of the teacher and how important compassion is to the learning environment. You just never know how much someone in your class needs that little bit of kindness – I hope that if any of the teachers mentioned above read this, they realise what an impact they had and how much it is still appreciated.
Now to work on advice that has been passed my way for years… Showing a bit of that compassion to myself! I think that’s a blog post for another time.