Into compassion-focussed practice

I first met the work of Thich Nhat Hahn in his book Being Peace, which spoke powerfully to me in my first school, as a Reception Class teacher. It taught me that there were oceans of compassion beyond feeling sorry – sorry for myself or (to use the term differently) sorry for the children.  This was professional formation just like the day-to-day stuff from the school that still is with me some thirty years later. I certainly am informed by the difficult relationship I blundered into in that first job, and I continue to ponder somewhere what I feel about the children I worked with, for whom some kind of pity was a misguided (and ultimately pointless) way of looking at my job. I might have learned my craft there, but I also learned I was not there to rescue any more than I was there to squash and squeeze children into a preformed version of childhood or, worse still, some dire, conformist apprentice adulthood accompanied by claxons blaring “the children love it,” and (for those that don’t), “Develop your growth mindset!”

I met compassion in wholly other ways in my first Nursery Head, Lesley Grundy, where her immense concern for the children and families was at the same time empowering and for her team almost engulfing. Admittedly, she was less focussed on her staff – but that was because she believed, I think, that we all followed her vision  in minute detail, that her idea of an inclusive and imaginative curriculum extended beyond simply sunny

Old Grandpont Nursery School from a drawing by Jo Acty

days in the Grandpont  Nursery garden. The school, of course, has a slightly different feel now (several headteachers after her and also a new building), but for me, Lesley roams the Grandpont garden still. I look into the retirement homes that now occupy the site of the old Nursery and see the croci we planted and almost hear her reading in the garden.  A real inheritor of the MacMillan ideal, Lesley’s compassion was practical, focussed on the children and families, and still remained long-sighted and visionary. I felt when I was a Head that I was a long, long way behind her.

I meet compassion rather differently in my encounters with what I see as a new version of compassion – what for shorthand I might call revolutionary compassion – in the thinking of my colleague Jon Reid and others (such as Simon Knight and Tim O’Brien) he works with or meets. This is Jon’s area of expertise, both in research terms and in practice, and in this post I am simply reflecting on what he teaches me.  Here, inclusiveness is a more radical expedition into the unknown again, further into what I (yes, and others better qualified than I am) have described as the tangled roots of a definition of curriculum, into the realm of the ethical practitioner. We come to a recent discussion on Twitter in which one contributor light-heartedly suggested measuring compassion and I brought heavy wellies to the comment, like an eejit. I was worried about measuring compassion having opposed the notion of measuring spirituality – for example, however cute and useful this clip is, there is a touch of the catechism – and adult control – about the acts of kindness and gratitude the children outline.  “Child A has met their mindfulness target…” The idea however that there could or should be some regulation or measurement of compassion has stayed with me, and I am profoundly dubious.

The deeply attitudinal nature of compassion makes it possible to see it more than to measure it. Measuring is only ever going to work for behaviours, and there is the possibility of these atrophying into this or that set pattern: think about the difference between respect and some of the regimented behaviours in the more controversial free schools and academies – free schools with exceptionally limited freedoms, academies where there is no debate unless sanctioned by the adults. I am not a fan of such measurement: if child A gives what they can and it is poorer than child B, then the adults have, I think, a duty to value what the child is giving – not just in the end-of term chocs, but the attention they can maybe muster after an exhausting weekend.

Revolutionary compassion however cannot be confused with letting children (or families) “off” in some way. I remember during my PGCE my tutor coaching me towards an understanding that “you may be the only stability that child has.” David, thank you: that stays with me and often helps me distinguish between genuine active help and simple woolly thinking. However, I don’t believe that confusion is what I see in the good-natured and sometimes hard-won generosity of people who act around me as proponents of compassion. Yes, there seem to me to be effective characteristics of such practitioners, such as an easy-going nature, lots of energy, and maybe a history that informs that compassion, but it is also quite steely; this compassion is deeper than being soft on kids (or students or colleagues). It is not straightforwardly measurable because it is not a set of behaviours that can be ticked off to get your compassion badge.

While I am not advocating a wholesale import of Buddhist ethics, it seems to me that this kind of action-compassion contains a sort of deep appreciation of the kind of interbeing that Thich Nhat Hahn teaches: a mutual interdependence, an understanding that the teacher (or the system) cannot really function without those around them, including the parent and the child. The system supports the learning – and really needs to support the professional adult (another story altogether) – but cannot be the true measure of a teacher. Some element of regulation is possible here, in the setting up of effective, well-funded systems of supervision and training that allows the new teacher to explore what it means to be on the edge of this difficult world where a desire to be empathetic meets real children: hungry for attention, good or bad, hungry for stability, sometimes simply hungry for breakfast… The mindful teacher is not necessarily someone with a candle s/he can bring out when stressed, but someone who appreciates the child, or the parent, or the colleague, in a way that attempts to understand the complexity of the life in their hands, and how we are, none of us, really that different. I think it goes further than that, but that will do for now.  I come full circle, back to Thich Nhat Hahn and his book The Sun My Heart: “We cannot take either side, because we exist in both.”


But while I’m ranting, I’m afraid I have to say that zero tolerance of genuinely disruptive behaviours is not the same as zero tolerance of the wrong shade of grey trousers.


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