Students spend a minimum of 720 hours in school every year. Every change and event in a child’s life during the school year reverberates around classroom walls and is felt by those surrounding them. Educators are granted one of the most powerful positions in students’ lives. They have the ability to make or break a future, to help, or to irreversibly damage the psyches of their students. Compassionate teaching is the backbone of education, and it is the responsibility of the instructor to cultivate an empathetic and communicative atmosphere in which students will flourish.
Unfortunately, those who wield the most power are also those who often become the most sadistic. It is entirely too common to see fear used as a tactic of control in classrooms. Policies that prevent students from taking tests due to absences, or late work that is automatically knocked down by 25 percent, are examples of a useless claim to power — the kind of things that don’t really matter in an educational sense but demonstrate the authority that a teacher holds, the capability to take your grade down at a moment’s notice.
In these classes, respect is demanded, and those who do not immediately submit to the supposed authority of the scorned teacher face wrath. This is the wrath of a figure powerless themselves in so many ways, who is looking to gain control over any aspect of their life. Teachers are underpaid and overworked, they are mistreated by the administration, admonished by parents, and expected to do the jobs of multiple people.
This said, a child will always be more vulnerable than those who have had the time to reach emotional maturity. According to the Center of the Developing Child, the formation of synaptic connections in the brain is strongest at the age of three, and after that, the possibility of growth and permanent behaviors slowly dwindles until personality is set almost in stone. These connections can be nourished over a lifetime, or weakened, depending on the frequency of use by their owner.
Let’s say a child has forgotten their homework, and when they go to class and admit this to their teacher, they are called out in front of an audience of their peers, or even belittled and admonished in private. The association that child now has with making mistakes is an unredeemable shame pinned to them by an authoritative figure. Every time someone scolds them for making a mistake, that connection grows stronger and stronger, while the smaller and less noticeable connection that allows for mistakes grows weaker.
One teacher who has put an undeniable effort into his compassion for students is Mikko Jokela. He currently teaches seventh grade humanities at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley. Jokela begins every year with a vow of solidarity: “We are on the journey together. I give students three promises when they walk in the door: I’m never angry at them, they automatically get my respect, and I will listen to them.”
He actively treats every individual with the recognition that they deserve, and in doing so models how to live in the world with compassion.
This is not to say that Jokela is perfect. Last year was a struggle for many teachers, as students were returning from a year-long lockdown in which they were not given the stimulation needed to succeed, and Jokela said that he deeply felt reprecussions for students in behavior, attentiveness, and mental health, among many other things. He elaborated on his personal struggle with maintaining his composure in the classroom.
“The pandemic has had a huge mental impact on our society, our students, and each individual. I would not say that I have completely prevailed, but I am in a better place now than I was last year,” Jokela said. He continued, “I have also started working 80% time because I need time to recuperate, meditate, and live a balanced life.” Jokela knows that being a good influence and good educator requires him to be at his healthiest in order to have the abilities and emotional capacity that he is asking of his students.
To reach and positively impact your students, you need to recognize and respect them. Public humiliation, excess punishment, and shame tactics may earn you a false title of authority, but the damage they inflict upon the children you claim to care so much about will last longer than your entire career. A real education is one of both knowledge and empathy, and educators are the ones gifted with the ability to instill these skills into our youth. Teachers worldwide should aspire to live by Jokela’s philosophy.
“(Teaching) is so beautiful. I feel like it is the greatest honor a person can have,” Jokela remarked. “The students and I learn together: how to treat each other well, but also how to treat ourselves with compassion. And when we fail, we never give up, and rise above.”