From Our Expert: Steven Dahl

Steven Dahl is and has been a district-level administrator for 6 years in Washington State schools, and recognized the need for high quality; job embedded professional development mechanisms for staff. The kinds of courses Steve creates have appeal across domains (teachers and administrators) and come with a solid rationale for being considered (compliance efforts, student achievement, and increasing commitment to a district’s theory of action, teacher action research, and developing interest-based communication strategies). Steve’s role as a Director of Special Programs (overseeing Special Education, Title 1, LAP, 504, counseling, etc.) have helped to inform his own vision for staff professional development.

Steven has been a conference presenter at the state level and an adjunct faculty member teaching both graduate and under-graduate sections of coursework required for secondary-level (6-12) teacher preparations programs. Coursework focused on preparing pre-service teachers for creating accessible and effective learning environments for students with a wide range of disabling conditions across secondary academic content areas.

Steven has a Masters of Education in Exceptional Children and his K-12 Principal Credential  and his K-12 Special Education Teaching Credential.

Steven has authored a new course for CE Credits Online and here is the introduction to the course, “Creating Compassionate Schools”

The heart knows today what the head will understand tomorrow.

– James Stephens (Irish poet, 1882-1950)

At first glance, you would not think that there would need to be a “case” made in defense of an approach to teaching that embraces pedagogies rooted in compassion. After all, what argument could be made against caring for our students? Who doesn’t want to be thought of as a caring and compassionate teacher? What parent doesn’t want to have a compassionate teacher for their child?

But as the opening quote by the Irish poet James Stephens suggests, at any time before the first decade of the 21st century a defense of “compassionate schooling” (or any variation of this approach) would have relied heavily on conventional wisdom and “reasons of the heart” for support.

At this time, educators should be aware that there is mounting cross-disciplinary support for compassionate schooling that spans findings in science, medicine, education, social services, and government. In fact, there is so much information in support of the development of compassionate schools that space simply will not allow for all of it to be covered. One goal of the class is to summarize many of these findings and how they indirectly or directly support the creation of compassionate schools to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse learning population.

It is anticipated that as a committed professional you are already actively engaged in many levels of educational reform that have a variety of applications to your work. You also may have a strong sense about your teaching style and wonder whether it will fit within a compassionate schooling approach. Perhaps you have so much on your plate right now that you can’t entertain the thought of adding more.

You may have one of three basic concerns about “compassionate schooling.”

  • Concern #1: Compassionate Schooling concerns itself with unscientific fluff or “TFC” (“touchy feely c+@p”)
  • Concern #2: Compassionate Schooling represents a distraction from “real reform” efforts
  • Concern #3: Compassionate Schooling is not for everyone and professionals need to be allowed to opt out.

These are valid concerns that will be addressed as you move through the course. Time will be invested in thinking through whether “compassionate schooling” is TFC, is just another reform strategy, or should remain optional for professionals.

Reflection Exercise

Describe your current level of understanding regarding “compassionate schools.” To what degree are you anxious or concerned about how the content of this course may impact you as a teacher? Reflect on each of the 3 concerns about “compassionate schooling” and to what degree you share these concerns.

Though we use the words “compassion” and “empathy” as synonyms in our everyday language, for purposes of this course a distinction will be made between empathy and compassion:

Consider a working definition of empathy and compassion:

Empathy may be defined as the act of understanding and identifying with another’s situation, feelings, or challenges

Compassion may be defined as a feeling of deep empathy and respect for another who is stricken by misfortune with the strong desire to actively do something about it.

In other words, compassion is the human quality of understanding the suffering of others paired with a desire to help alleviate it.

(adapted from: The Heart of Learning: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success)

The reason this distinction is necessary is because we would be hard pressed to find anyone working in education who does not feel empathy for the needs of their students. If all that was required to be a “compassionate school” was staff empathy for students – then virtually every school would meet that criterion. That said, no matter how much empathy we have toward students we cannot demonstrate compassion toward them unless we take action. Empathy is about an emotional state we feel; compassion is about what we do.

The obvious distinction is that while empathy acknowledges, compassion takes action. Empathy is a prerequisite for compassion but if left at that it results only in pity for students. To paraphrase a well- traveled saying based on a popular movie–

“Compassion is as compassion does.”

A related point is that creating compassionate “schools” has very little to do with the physical structure of the building. It is actually a misnomer to think of the school building as being “compassionate.” This point was recently reinforced by educational researchers Rick DuFour and Robert Marzano (2011) in their book, Leaders of Learning: How District, School, and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement. They re-emphasize a point made over 25 years ago by Ernest Boyer that “school improvement is really about people improvement” (pg. 15).

While this course is called “Creating Compassionate Schools” the emphasis is on how professional expertise can demonstrate compassion toward others (the act of creating an experience of compassion). Compassion in this sense is a verb (i.e., action) and so the approach may be interchangeably referred to as “creating compassionate schools” or “compassionate schooling.”

Professionals working to create compassionate schools operate from a data-driven perspective in recognition of the needs that exist. These needs can be represented objectively through data. But the needs represented all stem from the real needs of students – so while the approach draws from the best of what we can determine objectively, it never loses sight that we are in “the people business” as educators.

So, what kind of data-driven rationale might we consider for embracing a compassionate schooling approach?

The first level of data we should consider is the sheer amount of data that indicates a need for more pro-social behavior and altruistic regard between students. Student-to-student harassment, intimidation and bullying in addition to violence between students should be enough of a reason to pursue the creation of more compassionate learning experiences for students. The emergence of bullying through social utilities that are easily accessed also punctuate the need to recognize that how students treat one another must be thought of entirely differently than in previous generations. What was once thought of as the behavior of “playground bullies” extends to virtually anywhere a student can access a digital communication device (computer email, texting, phone). In recognition of this the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a number of resources and tools which may be of assistance in your role as a teacher addressing “electronic aggression.”

Electronic Media and Youth Violence: A CDC Issue Brief for Educators and Caregivers focuses on the phenomena of electronic aggression. Electronic aggression is defined as any kind of harassment or bullying that occurs through email, chat rooms, instant messaging, websites, blogs, or text messaging. The brief summarizes what is known about young people and electronic aggression, provides strategies for addressing the issue with young people, and discusses the implications for school staff, education policy makers, and parents and caregivers.

View or download Electronic Media and Youth Violence: A CDC Issue Brief for Educators and Caregivers

You can enroll and complete Creating Compassionate Schools and request graduate credits from one of our university affiliations click here to enroll CE Credits Online  use this special code Summer2012* during check out to receive a $15.00  introductory offer.

*Some restrictions apply.  Discount not available to LAUSD, CPS, NY ASPDP, NEA or prepaid clients.

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