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"The secret to building relationships is taking the time to build relationships," said Alex Kajitani, the 2009 California teacher of the year and self-proclaimed "rapping mathematician." In his packed featured session, "Creating a Culture of Compassion," sponsored by Chicken Soup for the Soul, Kajitani shared insight into the conditions that can make a school’s culture thrive or fail.
Kajitani drew on raw and compelling anecdotes from his experience as a middle school math teacher in the Escondido Union School District to underscore how relationships are at the epicenter of compassion, which he defined as "care and concern for others." To drive a culture of compassion, he said, we have to consider how we support teachers, parents, and students.
When his high-poverty middle school was facing a severe substitute teacher shortage, administrators asked teachers to cover other classes during their prep periods. That strategy, Kajitani shared ruefully, "lasted about two days." Instead, they had to find a way to attract new subs. Someone suggested offering them free lunch and assigning a teacher "buddy" to walk them to the cafeteria, help them get food, and invite them into the teacher’s lounge, where the staff included them in their conversations and asked genuine questions. Soon, word spread of this welcoming environment, and subs lined up to work at the school. "At the heart of it was compassion and empathy," said Kajitani.
Compassion can also help address teacher turnover, he added, which often stems from burnout or a lack of administrator support. For teachers, there’s the external struggle that is often noticed first (like poor classroom management), but the internal struggle ("Do I have what it takes to do this job?") and the philosophical struggle ("How do we get all of our students into environments where they can reach their academic potential?") are just as taxing. Try addressing these struggles with "polite and tough questions," Kajitani suggested, starting with the philosophical struggle because it’s those weightier issues that can affect the more obvious problems.
Making schools more welcoming for parents, especially for Spanish-speaking parents, is also crucial in a culture of compassion, said Kajitani, who shared several strategies. First, change the hallway signs to reflect different languages. Second, manage first impressions: If most of your school’s parents don’t speak English, make sure that the front office staff is fluent in Spanish. Finally, reverse the expectations. Instead of requiring parents to come to campus, consider sending teachers into the community. One principal, for example, took the budget for the staff’s back-to-school lunch, handed it out to a few parents, and asked them to cook a meal and host grade-level teams at their homes for lunch. As a result, those parents "had much more incentive to come to campus" and remained engaged throughout the year.
To ensure an environment that is supportive of students, make compassion a schoolwide effort. Kajitani reminded the audience that with social and emotional learning, especially when it comes to peer pressure, "We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training." Schools, he said, need to provide training so that "when that fight breaks out, when the heat is on," students know how to respond appropriately.
A short self-awareness activity can help students notice when they are becoming frustrated before their emotions boil over. Ask them to stop and reflect on what emotion they’re feeling (is it anger, jealousy, sadness?); where they’re feeling it (the physical place in body); and how intense it is (on a scale of 1 to 10). Self-awareness is foundational to building social awareness. When "students empathize with others, recognize and appreciate individual and group differences, and identify and follow societal standards of conduct," everyone can benefit.
As with any school environment, leaders must model the changes they want to see. Kajitani shared three simple ways that leaders can contribute to a culture of compassion:
End the silent conspiracy. That is, eliminate the unspoken agreements that, "If you just sit there and be quiet, I won’t demand anything great out of you today." They can exist between administrators and teachers, teachers and students—and even our loved ones. Kajitani told a story about running into a former student who had been in his class for an entire year. He couldn’t remember her name; he could only remember where she sat. "We had entered into the silent conspiracy." Ending the silent conspiracy means reaching out to make personal connections or having the courage to face controversial topics like threats of deportation head on.
Empower others. When an employee comes to you with a conflict, it’s important to guide them to find their own solutions. Pretend there is a monkey on their back, quipped Kajitani. They will try to put that monkey on your table, and your job as a leader is to make sure that they take the monkey with them. He offered some communication strategies for ushering the monkey out:
Be real. Finally, be authentic and comfortable with who you are. Take the things you love and put them into your leadership style every day. In closing, Kajitani played the video, "The Lost Generation," as a powerful nod to the hidden potential in all of us to change the narrative, to live a life full of hope and compassion.
Sarah McKibben is the managing editor of Education Update newsletter.
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