Teaching Compassion: This is Not Your Grandpa’s Ivory Tower

One of the greatest gifts to me as a prof has been to be able to provide my students with marketable skills that will help them improve their lives. Many of my students are from generations of welfare families and many have done time in one form or another. At least 90% are not college ready and few represent the ones that anyone expected to go to college. Most come from very rough backgrounds and return to the rough, drug and violence ridden neighborhoods when they leave my class. Good parenting and interpersonal relationship skills are way down on the list of things they are seeking at college, yet, those things are critical to the holistic picture of their future success.

I don’t only teach my students the hard skills like project management or applied statistics, I teach them how to come out of survival mode so they can be human – successfully human. Many will try to reach supervisory/managerial status and I want them to understand that hard skills are only part of it. One can be perfectly awesome at the technical stuff but absolutely hideous at the interpersonal stuff.

I talk a lot about experiences and relate those experiences to treating everyone at work with empathy and compassion, though I distinguish kindness from being a doormat. I tell them regularly that we should never lose sight of the fact that when coaching, counseling, or terminating an employee that we should do absolutely everything possible to maintain that person’s sense of dignity. The most important thing [I think] I tell them is that nobody – I mean nobody – has a right to destroy anybody else’s ego, even if they’ve done something we might think is awful. I hold students accountable with peer reviews and I make them practice these skills as often as possible. I tell them that I will catch them when they’ve skidded sideways a bit and that I will always point it out – because after all, if I don’t tell them, nobody will. I tell them I will be on their backs from Day 1 until Day N, with all love and respect. Over the lifespan of their degrees, I regularly see miraculous transformations.

I teach the people that nobody else in the Ivory Tower would choose to teach. When I began at this college, I thought that this wasn’t the student constituency I trained to serve and that I sure didn’t sign up for “this”. Then I realized that everything in life, including the way I grew up surrounded by the same demographic, had prepared me for this. I resisted it all, at first, but then the transformations started happening and the “Dr. Evil” movement began. It is for these reasons that I will always be my students’ biggest fan. If they’re in the boat 100%, I’m right there with them. Whatever it takes. If they’re not in the boat, I recognize and accept that I cannot save them because they have to save themselves. Sometimes I cry buckets for certain students and wish that I could save them. Regardless, they know I am a ferocious advocate who cares deeply.

My biggest contribution to higher education has not been my publications or citations or contributions to the scholarly community, but rather it has been watching some very rough customers realize that we’re all carrying something inside and no matter what business we’re in or how much money we make, we will fail if we don’t see each other with compassion. For this opportunity, I regularly find myself immensely humbled.

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6 thoughts on “Teaching Compassion: This is Not Your Grandpa’s Ivory Tower

  1. I cried… one because I’m a big baby… and two, because I have been several of those people…
    I’m the one too scared to hear and understand treatment options
    I’m the one they saw “something” on my mammogram
    I’m the one who’s results were benign
    I’m the one who always wanted children of my own, ( but won’t ever have )
    And I’m just like everyone else.
    Great video and message. XX

    • Awwww goshdarnit! [blushing] Thank you so much. I really dig when I have epiphanies that actually make sense to other humans. It’s one thing to have an epiphany but it’s a waste if it can’t be shared.

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