First Person

To Understand Your Students, Use 'Compassionate Curiosity'

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After more than 30 years of teaching, I am still humbled and awed when parents hand their children over to me on the first day of school. It is an act of profound trust, especially when I know that my personal teacher-version of the Hippocratic Oath to "do no harm" is sometimes not enough. I will make mistakes. I will miss things, I will design imperfect solutions to behavioral and learning challenges, and I will fall prey to making erroneous assumptions about them.

Although I will always try to be kind, patient, understanding, and reflective in my instruction, my good intentions and impact will not always align. I will fail. Although I am pretty sure that I continue to get better at this job, I am definitely a work in progress. And because the stakes are so high, that’s a hard truth to swallow.

It is stressful to sign on for a job that is bigger than you. Ceaseless internal and external expectations to "get it right" can lead to teacher burnout (or make us perpetually anxious). Teachers are charged with staying nimble and self-critical. The more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know. That reality is especially true when it comes to our students. Simply accepting that we don’t know everything important about our students—and never will—is an important first step. The best way to offset that unfortunate truth is to incorporate compassionate curiosity into our daily practice.

Classrooms Need Compassion in Action

Thich Nhat Hanh, world-renowned mindfulness expert and spiritual leader, sees compassion as a verb—something we can do. It is a form of being mindful. Compassion asks teachers to pause before assuming we know what was behind a student’s rude or hurtful remark, disruptive behavior, or poorly executed or missing work. It shifts us out of the role of judge and into the role of investigator—a caring one. It invites our students to tell us more. Disappointing behavior is no longer automatic evidence that a student is insensitive, doesn’t care, or is not trying. More often than not, there is a complicating factor that can be revealed (and sometimes removed) through nonjudgmental investigation.

"Compassionate curiosity" is medicinal. It helps build critical trust and connection with our students because it communicates to them that they matter. It is also illuminating. It can interrupt our potential biases and assumptions about our students’ thinking and abilities. Effective investigation involves more than simply questioning, though. It also involves observation.

Maybe a student is a leader in class discussion, but when it comes to written expression on the same topic she offers one or two poorly crafted, confused sentences. Instead of assuming that the student doesn’t understand the concept, it is important to have a conversation to see how much she knows when she doesn’t have to write it down. Often I find the student is struggling with a mechanical breakdown with handwriting ability or stamina, keyboarding, or spelling anxiety—not comprehension. These are critical distinctions. Simply employing a dictation app may be enough to address that gap and allow the student to show what she knows.

Sometimes performance is not about skill challenges at all. It could be about time—not having enough of it. A private conversation can reveal that a student has significant expectations placed on him afterschool (supervising younger siblings, major extracurricular commitments, chores). Maybe he is in the car or on a bus for long travel times, or perhaps his house is noisy or chaotic or stressful. In addition to not having a place to work, read, or think, he may not be getting enough sleep. That may also offer important context for the disrespectful, loud groans that precede each activity, or knee-jerk responses helplessly claiming, “I don’t understand” (when he does).

A Path to Trusting Relationships

I can devise solutions and strategies, but it helps to know what is getting in the student’s way. And with or without big revelations, simply listening—really listening—without offering any silver-bullet solutions can work wonders. Demonstrating that I am paying attention and that I care can sometimes be enough to help a student feel seen and want to invest in learning.

Compassionate curiosity is an observational and investigatory skill. Like anything else, it is grown through practice and experience. I have become more skilled at it over time, but I continue to improve.

In academics, teachers model that it is OK not to know things; we discover information through research, observation, and inquiry. Compassionate curiosity is no different. In fact, it is key to developing healthy relationships with family members and friends in general. When we model this important social and emotional skill with our students, we can help them understand its power, and help them grow it in themselves.

Students don’t come to us with tidy labels and operating instructions. They are mysterious, developing individuals. Approaching their struggles like puzzles to solve, rather than problems to react to, makes our instruction more effective. It also makes teaching more rewarding and enjoyable. Although compassionate curiosity doesn’t prevent us from failure or mistakes, it reduces them. Most importantly, this caring practice can help us earn the sacred trust of students, as well as that of their parents.

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