(I wrote this blog post for Postcards for Peace on November 2, 2016. I am re-posting it here because I think that these are some pretty cool ideas that are worth highlighting.)
This question is of interest to many working in the fields of education, mental health, youth development, and peacebuilding. I believe that compassion can be learnt not only from scriptures and spiritual traditions but also from peers, teachers, parents, grandparents, neighbours and many others that a child comes into contact with. Schools, most certainly, can play a brilliant role in embedding compassion as a value in their processes and practices — what we broadly refer to as ‘school culture’.
The Oakridge International School in Mohali, India, has introduced ‘The Compassion Project’ into their curriculum for grades 3 to 5. In the last week of October 2016, Asiya Shervani, Ramanjit Ghuman and Abhishek Sharma from Oakridge invited me to meet six of their homeroom teachers from Grades 3 and 4, and their Activity Co-ordinator, to share some ideas that they could adapt and implement in the school. Though we spent only a couple of hours with each other, I was delighted by their commitment to the project, their openness to unusual ideas, and their enthusiasm to turn their classrooms into spaces for radical transformation.
I think that some of the ideas I shared with them could be found useful by other teachers in other schools as well. It is in that spirit that I write this blog post.
* Book hospital: Usha Mukunda, a senior librarian who used to work at the Centre for Learning in Bangalore, introduced me to a fascinating practice at their school. A corner in the library was designated as ‘the book hospital’. It was well stocked with paper, glue, scissors, cellotape, and other material required to repair damaged books. Students were encouraged to adopt books, and look after them, in their free time.
* Appreciation Notes: Kavita Anand, the founder of Shishuvan — the school in Mumbai that I worked with for two years — introduced pages in each student handbook for teachers to write appreciation notes. Unfortunately, most teachers did not use this space much, preferring to communicate with parents mainly on occasions when they had a problem to discuss or a complaint to make. It is important that teachers make the time to talk to parents about students’ efforts and achievements.
* Support Staff as Resource Persons: Many schools involve students in running programmes that serve the support staff. However, these often tend to operate from the assumption that those with class and caste privilege have something to give, and those without must graciously receive. It is possible to venture into a model of interaction that is respectful to both parties, and calls forth their strengths and talents. I was happy to discover that the teachers at Oakridge recently invited the electrician working at their school to co-teach a unit on electricity. Imagine how rich our classrooms would be if the support staff were invited to share their skills and knowledge, which are practical in nature, and may not be found in books. Imagine the quality of relationships in the school if such interactions happened frequently.
* Upstanders versus Bystanders: While I was teaching Harper Lee’s novel ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ as a literature text to eighth graders at Shishuvan, I came across an interesting video by the organization Facing History And Ourselves. It spoke of ‘upstanders’ — people who stand up for others — as opposed to ‘bystanders’ — people who do not take a stand when others are being threatened, bullied or harmed. Do we encourage our students to develop the courage and compassion to take the risks that might be involved in being upstanders? Or do we convey the message that students must mind their own business, and not get entangled in other people’s affairs? One of my students spoke up about a boy in her class who was being routinely bullied on the sports field. I’m proud of her. She risked being unpopular among some of the students but she saved one of them from further harm. She also set an example for others who wanted to be upstanders.
* Co-operation over Competition: When I participated in a Training of Trainers on Youth and Peacebuilding at the Rajiv Gandhi National Institute of Youth Development in Chandigarh recently, I noticed that our facilitators Mansi Panjwani, Abha Jeurkar and Ajatshatru had designed most of our games and activities in such a manner that we were not pitted against each other. We were put into situations where we had to support, encourage and collaborate. How often do we do this in our schools? Competition is so ingrained in our systems that students often ask why someone else was awarded a better grade instead of how they could perform better. Early in life, we teach them to win at the expense of others, not along with others. Can we create group assignments or projects that value sharing of skills and resources, that reward students who are able to show respect in situations of conflict?
* Student-Led Innovation: If we create a welcoming environment for students to come up with ideas, they can leave us spellbound. Tulika Bathija, a teacher at Ecole Mondiale International School in Mumbai, is helping her students run a book donation drive to set up a library for children with limited financial means. Her students had a fantastic brainwave. They wanted to set up a quality check committee so that there is an efficient screening process to ensure that only books in good condition are received. Isn’t that amazing? Sometimes, people who donate objects are just looking to get rid of what they don’t want. They fail to recognize the dignity of those who receive their gifts.
* Asking for Support: We do talk about kindness as a virtue but we probably don’t emphasize enough that it is okay to ask for support when one needs it. Compassion is not meant to be directed only towards others but also towards oneself. There are times when, as a teacher, one feels vulnerable due to a health problem. Instead of being a valiant martyr, it is alright to request the students’ cooperation in terms of keeping the noise levels low or trying to sort out conflicts among themselves before seeking the teacher’s intervention. Students could benefit from such an opportunity, and learn to care for people who are unwell. When one of the students at Oakridge fell ill recently, his classmates decided to make a get-well-soon card without their teacher suggesting the same.
* Positive Reinforcement: Schools give away prizes, medals, trophies and certificates for academic performance and extracurricular activities. How about rewarding, with as much applause, students who switch off lights and fans that aren’t being used, who pick up garbage left over by others, who reach out to those who are excluded from games, who resolve conflicts between peers, who stand up against hate speech of various kinds?