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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Profession Opinion

Are We Compassionate Enough in Schools?

By Matt Fleming — December 01, 2020 6 min read
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Life’s most urgent question is, “What are you doing for others?” —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today’s guest blog is written by Matthew Fleming, an administrator from the central coast of California who has almost three decades of experience as a teacher and principal at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

The season is upon us once again. But we all know that things are different this year. We aren’t going to gather so freely and so readily this time. Our cherished traditions and annual festivities are being altered in ways we never imagined. There’s no office holiday party or sitting on Santa’s lap. Instead, it’s a brief online “cocktail party” and a photo behind plexiglass.

The holidays inside a pandemic are likely to create a convergence of unfortunate psychological trauma. Every year, the months of November and December ring in more than familiar celebrations. More people report depression, and both suicides and homicides increase during the holidays in the United States and many other Western nations. Not exactly the coziest of thoughts to keep us warm as we remain locked up together for the ninth month.

If only there were something that could make a difference. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was some way each of us could make a difference for our loved ones and co-workers?

It turns out that there are those among us who have had the answer all along. The problem is some insist on viewing them as weak or unrealistic. I am talking about those individuals who engage in unrestrained acts and words of compassion.

Compassion is often equated with weakness, while mean-spiritedness and harshness are seen as tough, direct, and effective. Those of us who have served in the military understand toughness. In education, we condition ourselves to exemplify compassion toward our students. Just like good parents, no matter how overwhelmed, how frustrated, or how exhausted we are, it is important for us to summon a warm, upbeat tone and facial expression for the little ones. We are rightly proud of this.

But how does this translate to our adult relationships? Do we treat our colleagues, co-workers, and loved ones the same way?

Researching Compassion

There is now over 40 years of research on compassion and its effects upon physical and mental health. Recently, the medical community has been experiencing a renaissance compassion. In their book Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference, Drs. Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarreli relay the many ways that a little compassion goes a long way. For instance, if a patient knows that their doctor cares, it has statistically proven correlation to longer survivability with terminal illness.

Conversely, a lack of compassion leads to everything from increased medical mistakes to unexpected death. But this concept is not restricted to medicine. Clients who sense that their therapists sincerely care about them are more likely to respond well to therapy. And it should come as no surprise that employees who sense that their supervisors and employers care about them are more likely to stay with the organization and perform at a higher level consistently.

Human beings crave compassion. Numerous studies indicate that we are not getting enough at work. It is accepted that we have been losing new and midcareer teachers at an alarming rate for many years. Likewise, administrators are walking away. And the most common reason that many quit or move on is due to a sense of burnout.

What contributes to this burnout?

According to research, the biggest contributor to burnout is that employees believe their supervisors do not value them and that they are underappreciated. This was found to be more important than pay or the number of hours subjects were expected to work. The second most important thing has been repeatedly found to be relationships in the workplace. A factor in satisfaction level for both of these variables is the perception of caring from supervisors.

So here we are. Isolated behind our screens. If we aren’t making the extra effort now to show we care about one another, then we are hoping that a paycheck is enough to hold onto people. The research does not indicate that it ever has been. And things may be much worse now.

The Cost to Schools

Some may now be asking, so what? If an employee wants to leave, then let them. Again, this is shortsighted. Even if a school district believes that turnover is a good thing, they may well be missing an important fiscal point. Turnover is expensive. Replacement costs vary by region and are hard to generalize nationally, but they tend to increase with the salary and the experience level of the employee.

Entry level, hourly classified employees may likely follow the national average of 16 percent of their annual salary to replace. But senior administrative employees can cost as much as the equivalent of three years’ salary. I encourage any HR professionals or superintendents who read this to calculate the cost of replacing employees. I bet they’d be surprised. Years ago, when I worked in human resources, my supervisor and I calculated the cost of replacing a single teacher at over $21,000. Wouldn’t public funds be better served with less expensive supports—or the occasional display of compassion.

A kind word and a caring attitude cost nothing.

The research has shown that adding simple words of compassion can make all the difference and take only a few seconds. Thirty to 50 seconds per conversation to be exact. Many of us are busy. But few are too busy for that. Displaying genuine compassion is a trait of transformational, servant leaders. These people inspire because they demonstrate caring when they have nothing to gain personally. The custodian or bus driver is as valuable to them as the board member or superintendent.

A New Year...

As we approach the end of a tough and memorable year, may I encourage us all to try something new in 2021? The next time we are having a tough conversation with someone, perhaps we can try to add something like this: “I know this isn’t easy to hear. But I am going to walk through this with you. I will be here if you need anything. I will listen to you, and I will do everything I can to help you succeed.” If we mean it, it can make all the difference in the world.

The research shows that compassion inspires trust, loyalty, and improved performance. It can show the people we work with that they matter, that we don’t expect them to always be perfect. Our colleagues and subordinates need to know that they are important to us as individuals, that we are here to serve with them not to be served by them, and that we are more concerned with transformation than transaction. Finally, we can be most effective in this if our words are a precursor to action.

Even though we have almost escaped 2020, we are still all in this together. And we have a long way to go. Along the way, every one of us will need compassion from someone else—and we never know when that might happen. One last thought. The research also shows that people who display compassion for others are happier, more satisfied with life, suffer less from mental illness, and are healthier. We have literally nothing to lose by taking the time to be compassionate.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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