Cultivating Compassion in the Classroom

For the past several years, I have been researching and teaching on compassion in medicine and education. On World Kindness Day 2018, I want to take a few moments to reflect on how compassion can be cultivated in the classroom and beyond. There are two routes to improving this very human and very necessary skill: acting compassionately, and by developing our sensitivity to feeling compassion.

When I began my career as a Teaching Assistant, during the second year of my graduate program, an older grad student told me that I should always have a box of tissues and a bowl of candies on my desk. These small comforts were, indeed, often necessary and appreciated—especially as the end of the quarter drew nigh and my students’ stress levels and emotions were running high. I liked to attribute my care for my students to empathy, to my capacity to imagine and understand their predicaments and to respond appropriately. Now, years later, I’m not so sure.

I teach a seminar on compassion in medicine to second-year medical students. One of the readings I’ve selected for this class comes from philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in which she makes a stark claim that my students often find initially challenging. Empathy, she maintains, “does not suffice for compassion,” and she then goes on to list all sorts of situations demonstrating the divisibility of the two. More or less, she claims one can experience fellow-feeling in happy events as well as sad and that one can imagine the suffering of another—perhaps a perceived enemy—with relish rather than revulsion.

To be honest, I find it a vast relief to think that I can be compassionate towards someone without having to empathize with them. If empathy is the standard, I have failed many times. I, too, am human: I am often tired; I sometimes feel cross, impatient with, or frazzled by my students. I have worked with students who face challenges I am, at times, hard-pressed to imagine. But, even if I don’t feel it, I have tools for assuaging pain when I see it. This, I think, is the secret of the tissues and the candy. Proffered to a needful student, my tissues say that I acknowledge their suffering; that I am prepared for it; that I intend to help them in some way. My candies add a bit of sweetness to a painful situation. These were, in a word, concrete gestures of solidarity, of availability, of shared humanity.

Actions of compassion like these are especially important. In my med-school classes, I have the students bring in 3×5 cards with kind actions on them and we generate a list of the kind of small, everyday things that have made us feel seen and understood. It’s always illuminating how simple many of these things are:

Ask someone how their day is, and really listen to the answer.

Acknowledge the suffering of others by saying “I’m really sorry that you have to go through this,” or “That sounds very challenging.”

Offering words of encouragement like “That was hard,” and “I’m proud of you!”

Noticing when someone is having a hard time and helping them out, whether that’s just holding a door or swiping a stranger through to the train with your card when theirs unexpectedly comes up empty.

The second route is the cultivation of imagination. Even as she separates the two, Nussbaum notes that while empathy “is not clearly necessary for compassion, it is a prominent route to it.” Keith Oatley, now professor emeritus of the University of Toronto, has demonstrated that reading fiction can enhance our ability to empathize. Novels that allow us to see the inner workings of the protagonist’s mind let us to play around with different ways of seeing and approaching the world; they can put us into the minds of people who have different fears, traumas, joys, and struggles than ourselves. We can try on scenarios and personae through reading, and this increases our ability to imagine the lives of those around us kindly.

In the educational and medical contexts, empathetic awareness and understanding can be cultivated by engaging with the stories of the people around us. I always ask my students “How do you feel about this?” or “How does this grade make you feel?” I don’t want to assume that they react and feel the same way I would. Recently, one of my students offered this tool for personal compassion: remember that this person was once a baby and he or she came into the world as innocent and unmarked as everyone else does. Everything that has happened since that moment has shaped them into their present form. This is, essentially, an appeal to hold open space for that person’s story—a plea for imagining the life and circumstances of another—no matter how difficult it might seem to feel compassion towards them.

Stories work both ways, and I share a lot of my own with my students. I think that a common barrier to compassion today is our cultural aversion towards displaying weakness. This has a tendency to isolate us and make us feel like our struggles and failures are abnormal. Normalizing struggle by sharing our own stories of less-than-stellar success is an important part of cultivating compassion because it forces us to acknowledge that we, too, are capable of hurting. I often tell my students stories of my failed assignments, of my less-than-perfect grades, of the times I did not do my best work.

This is all very intense, very human work. It is not easy to make myself vulnerable by sharing stories of my own struggles; it is not always easy to look at an adult and remember that they, too, were once an innocent baby. But the human connection that this work generates is well worth the effort.

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