Compassionate Teaching

Compassionate pedagogy is a collection of teaching practices designed to foster human connection, communication, and wellbeing. The approach revolves around listening to students’ lived experiences and offering flexibility to accommodate their struggles. David Schoem (2017) writes, “The deepest classroom learning takes place when we recognize that teachers and students come to class as whole persons . . . with a loving soul and soulful spirit” (p. 79). If we want our students to learn well, we need to honor the often imperfect way they show up to class and office hours. This teaching guide will offer a brief overview of the theory behind compassionate pedagogy, an argument for why compassion matters in the classroom, and five compassionate practices you can implement as you plan your courses.

Defining Compassionate Pedagogy

This concept stems from Richie Neil Hao’s (2011) research on critical compassionate pedagogy, which draws on Freire’s conceptualization of critical pedagogy (e.g., Pedagogy of the Oppressed). Hao defined critical compassionate pedagogy as “a pedagogical commitment that allows educators to criticize institutional and classroom practices that ideologically place underserved students at disadvantaged positions, while at the same time be self-reflexive of their actions through compassion as a daily commitment” (p. 92). In this practice, educators are committed to the success of historically marginalized student subgroups by countering oppressive pedagogies. This happens by first acknowledging structural issues and then reducing negative impacts on students (Hill et al., n.d.). The goal is for educators and students to collaborate in creating a classroom environment that is conducive to learning for all.

Compassionate pedagogy is intended in part to relieve suffering (Garrison, 2010). Students want to be seen, heard, and known, thus one of the greatest acts of compassion we can offer others is the sacred art of listening. As teachers, we can welcome them and validate their experiences by listening to their stories. Their suffering won’t magically disappear, but our commitment to listening will lessen their burden ever so slightly. By listening, we tell students, “You’re not alone in this. I will support you.” Listening strengthens the relationship between teacher and student so the partnership in learning can flourish.

Literature on compassionate pedagogy follows three key trajectories. First, some scholars are building on Hao’s work with critical compassionate pedagogy to continue dismantling systemic issues in higher education for the good of marginalized students. We see this in trauma-informed pedagogy, which acknowledges how students’ past and present experiences affect their wellbeing and capacity for learning (e.g., Harrison et al., 2020; Imad, 2020). Second, some educators are addressing how compassionate pedagogy helps educate the whole person by tapping into cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual development (e.g., Laucella, 2019). Finally, since the COVID-19 pandemic, research has emerged about compassionate teaching in online spaces or in light of student mental health concerns (e.g., Gelles et al., 2020). This research does not necessarily incorporate critical theory but still examines the importance of the instructor-student relationship when students are struggling in school because of societal issues beyond their control.

Why Compassionate Teaching Matters

Compassionate teaching is important because students are whole people trying to balance a variety of identities in addition to that of being a student. These identities are constantly competing for priority, and every so often, another identity wins out when a student is at school. Maybe a parent passed away. Maybe a student is enduring a major life transition. Whatever the reason, school is momentarily not a priority. It is our responsibility as educators to honor this very real challenge of studenthood and support our students as they learn to balance competing demands.

A key tenet of learning theory is that arousal—or stress—competes with learning (see Emotions in Learning guide). When students are in an aroused state, they cannot absorb or retain as much information as at other times (Vogel & Schwabe, 2016). It is no secret that student mental health concerns are at an all-time high, which is only worsened by the ongoing COVID-19 endemic (Eisenberg & Lipson, 2020). Recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a series of articles about the challenge of teaching students who are disengaged. Students have been functioning in an aroused state for a prolonged time, and it affects their ability to show up to the classroom ready to learn. Compassionate pedagogy is one tactic that educators can employ to improve the instructor-student relationship, increase engagement in the classroom, and reduce the stress students are experiencing. Compassionate practices benefit all students, and some benefit exponentially.

Compassionate Practices

The following list of compassionate practices is intended to provide a launching point for you to consider what might work well for your courses or your discipline. These require little adjustment to what you’re already doing and are therefore low stakes to implement. This list is not all-inclusive, and references are provided for further reading.

Provide Detailed Syllabi

Students like to know what to expect, so the more information you give them ahead of time, the better they can plan for major assignments. Andy Wright (2021) suggests using the four C’s—clarity, consistency, cohesion, and care—for online courses, but the concepts are relevant to constructing a syllabus for any course. First, make the full course schedule available on the first day of class. This allows students to know what to expect and to see the flow of the course. Second, provide assignment details and your expectations in the syllabus. This provides clarity on how students should write and how you plan to grade (Gelles et al., 2020). Third, use language in the syllabus that reflects your actual demeanor towards students. You might consider uploading your syllabus into the “Self and Syllabus Tool” to assess alignment between your espoused values and your syllabus language. Finally, consider including a basic needs statement in your syllabus. This shows students that you’re aware of potential barriers to learning and you want to support them in more than their academic pursuits (Carrasco, 2022; The Hope Center, 2020).

Build in Flexibility

My favorite course policy came in a graduate course about equity issues in higher education. This instructor told us on Day 1 that we had four grace (or flex) days we could use at any point in the semester. If we wanted to use all four for one assignment, fine. I chose to split mine and used two days for my first paper and one day for my final paper based on the alignment with assignments for other courses. This policy offered flexibility to accommodate competing assignments, reduced stress knowing grace was available, and set a clear expectation about the extent to which our instructor would accommodate us. A win-win.

Undergraduates might also benefit from flex days, especially if you help them learn to see grace days as a merciful buffer instead of an expected accommodation. It’s important that you do not demand an explanation for why a student is using grace days; not all students feel comfortable disclosing personal concerns to professors, and a required explanation might make grace feel contingent, which defeats the idea of grace days (Schacter et al., 2021). When implemented well, such a policy should, in turn, help reduce student anxiety. Similarly, consider offering students an ‘oops token’—a one-time pass to excuse the student from an assignment of their choice without explanation for why (Darby & Lang, 2019).

Another idea for flexibility: allow students to retake quizzes or substitute grades when appropriate (Schacter et al., 2021). Or, plan to drop the lowest 1–3 quiz scores at the end of the semester. If a student struggles with test anxiety, you might consider offering an alternative assessment in place of or in addition to the original multiple choice exam. Or, you could consider ungrading for your course—a practice that facilitates learning through frequent and thorough feedback without the stress of achieving an A. These policies show students that you recognize life happens and you want to honor their best efforts rather than penalizing them for having an off day or week.

Model Empathy and Grace

Students learn a lot from watching you. Professors can make or break an entire discipline, especially in introductory courses (Chambliss & Takacs, 2014). It’s important that you model the virtues you desire your students to develop. With compassionate pedagogy, you want to model empathy and grace. Don’t assume that students know you’re compassionate; rather, state it often (Laucella, 2019). Remind students that you are human too and also have imperfect moments. But also, come to class prepared. This, too, shows students that you care. And when you provide students with feedback on their work, be mindful of your tone (Lawrence, 2021). Consider focusing on one or two areas for improvement, acknowledging what students did well, and using constructive language that helps students improve for future assignments (Harris, 2017).

Wait to Assign Zeros

The human brain easily falls into thinking traps, and the last thing you want to communicate to your students is that they can’t be successful in your course. At the beginning of the semester, individual grades carry a lot more weight than at the end; it’s just how averages work. If a student misses an assignment early on, the zero they receive will significantly lower their grade in the course. Their brain might (incorrectly) jump to the assumption that they stand no chance of recovering. As a result, they’ll give up and not invest as much energy in the course as when they believe they can succeed. You lose nothing by assigning zeros at the end of the semester or the midpoint, but students might maintain self-confidence and motivation.

Additionally, consider why you assign zeros. Is it to exert power? To punish the behavior of missing assignments? Or are you using grades to tell a story about student learning? If that’s the case, a zero would indicate absolutely no learning has happened. Chances are that your students learned at least something even if they did not submit an assignment. Alternatively, you could give students a 50% instead of a zero (Kunnath, 2019; Reeves, 2004). A 50% on most assignments is not enough to pass the course but it also will not affect the course grade as much as a zero would. It also better reflects that learning has occurred, even if the student hasn’t demonstrated such through the formal assignment. This is another way to be fair yet compassionate: helping students believe in their ability to succeed.

Cultivate Communication

Communication is arguably the most important part of compassionate pedagogy. Remember, this practice hinges on students and faculty working together to break down barriers to academic success. You might need to initiate relationships with your students by showing up to class early or reaching out to anyone who appears to be struggling (Lang, 2016; Schacter et al., 2021). Frequently mention your availability during office hours. Be transparent about your own struggles in the past or present. Acknowledge potential hardship or losses in light of greater societal events (White, 2020). And when students do reach out to you, reinforce the behavior. Thank them for their vulnerability and encourage them to continue reaching out for help. Normalize help-seeking behaviors rather than stigmatizing having demands other than school. In turn, this might even motivate students to do better, knowing that you are an ally in their journey (Gelles et al., 2020).

Compassionate pedagogy is more important now than ever before in our post-pandemic society. Students will likely be reeling from pandemic-disrupted learning for years to come. By teaching compassionately, you come alongside students and help relieve some of their suffering. And hopefully, they learn to show compassion to others, including their peers and professors. Compassion will only benefit students in the long run.


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