7 Traits of Compassionate Schools

What would happen if we invested as much energy in nurturing compassionate schools as we do in other education reforms? I continue to value schools that focus upon a few school-shaping concepts and build their entire community around those…compared to schools that have a broad, generic mission of educating children. The latter often lacks a strong culture that draws people together and into deep learning and curiosity. As such, I enjoy seeing so many such schools school school-shaping concepts start and gain attention.

As such, we find ourselves in a time when there are indeed schools with distinct niches. We have highly competitive schools. We have college prep schools. We have schools that focus on nurturing creativity. We have schools that value collaboration and teamwork. We have schools interested in producing good citizens. We also have STEM schools, project-based learning schools, self-directed learning schools, performing arts schools, schools that focus on healthcare professions, Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, and classical schools.

These schools all have a clear and distinct cultures. They have a compelling why for what they do. They have the courage to commit to a distinct philosophy or a small set of school-shaping concepts.

Yet, as I’ve been visiting more schools, I’ve also been delighted to see another school-shaping concept at work. It is a concept that certainly has implications for the future of these learners, but it is also about creating a rich and rewarding present community for these young people. In other words, it isn’t just about a future outcome. It is shaped by a belief about how learners should be treated now. I’m referring to schools that make it their mission to be the most compassionate and humane learning communities possible.

When I talk about compassionate schools, I’m referring to learning communities where leadership, teachers, learners and parents come to have a shared vision of a school full of people who are consistently caring toward one another, there is a deep honor for one another (and their distinct gifts and differences), people are warm and welcoming to everyone else, where people are kind and warm-hearted, learning to initiate acts of kinds to others. These acts are not out of compulsion or requirements but because they genuinely care about the other person (and people), and they want to do the hard work required to create such a broadly compassionate community. It is a place where people know how to show and give grace to one another.

“Kids will be kids”, some argue as they justify acts of cruelty, indifference, and bullying that characterize some school hallways, playgrounds, in class group interactions, and informal gatherings before and after school. True, young people are developing and they will work through a myriad of emotions, learn through good and bad decisions, and sometimes learn lessons the hard way.

At the same time, school culture and commitment to compassion makes a huge difference. I’ve seen it firsthand. I’ve seen schools where young people have learned how to disagree while still showing honor to the other person(s). I’ve witnessed cultures where people are quick to give grace and show compassion instead of quickly taking advantage of a chance to tear down another person. I’ve enjoyed observing the low anxiety and feeling of being safe by students in these deeply compassionate communities. I’ve seen it happen with learners coming from a variety of family contexts, even some that were abusive and grappling with life and death issues. For these young people, how much more valuable is it to create a place where others have your back, where you can feel free, safe, genuinely wanted, valued and welcome?

Yet, for such a community to develop, it calls for a set of convictions, commitments and consistent actions. Here are seven of them.

  1. Compassion is consistently elevated and celebrated as an outcome that has inherent value, even greater value than test scores and academic performance. This doesn’t mean that people are no longer accountable for their actions, but when they are held accountable, it is done with compassion.
  2. Bullying, harsh actions and words, and mimicry of cruelty in popular culture is not dismissed or tolerated as unavoidable aspects of a modern youth culture. It also isn’t just verbally condemned. There are seen as weeds that must be pulled and prevented, and people work relentlessly to ensure that safety and grace push out such weeds.
  3. As such, there must be a belief that we can have a more compassionate school culture if we invest in it. We have to believe that this can indeed be achieved.
  4. There are habits, rituals, mutually agreed upon rules, and values that are taught or collectively learned and created; and these must align with the value of creating a compassionate school. They must amplify the value of compassion.
  5. If we discover that certain habits, rituals, rules and values are competing with our goal of nurturing a compassionate community; then the community must collectively work through that and make intentional choices about address it.
  6. Ownership and accountability must be core expectations and values of the community as well. In all my observations of schools, I’ve yet to see a deeply compassionate school where people were not accountable for their actions in clearly understood ways, and that this accountability is consistent and predictable. I’ve seen it in both teacher-led and student-centered contexts, but it has to be clear and consistent. Similarly, from the earliest days at the school, learners must know and come to believe that they are responsible for their own words and actions, that they are expected to self-regulate and take ownership for what they do and do not contribute or accomplish in the community.
  7. There are exemplars, models, stories and teachings that reinforce these values.

When I see most or all of these commitments in a school, it is far more likely to be a compassionate school. Yes, parents want their kids to be challenged, to learn and to grow. While some argue that the harshness of some schools is good preparation for the “real world”, school is the real world, and what we expose young people to in school can help them develop life scripts and visions of what type of families and world they want to help create. Why not create schools that give young people a crisp and compelling view of how they can contribute to more compassionate communities around the world? Even apart from such a grand goal, I contend that compassionate schools are simply better places to send our young people.