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Arming teachers with hospitality and compassion


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AS I SEE IT | Ernest Solar, assistant professor of special education at Mount St. Mary’s University

March 22, 2017

One important piece is missing in America’s quest to make our schools safer: a sense of connectedness and belonging. Teachers are not only responsible for the safety of each student, but they are also accountable for showing compassion and hospitality in their classroom. Hospitality is a classroom teacher’s intentional practice to accept and include each student, regardless of disability, into the overall learning environment, as defined in 2011 by David W. Anderson in the Journal of Education & Christian Belief. With 10 years of experience working with students with emotional disabilities, I understand the difficulty of this charge. Teachers have human biases and fears that influence our interactions with students. However, teachers must set aside these feelings when interacting with each individual student. Teachers must always respect the human dignity of every student in their classroom. Each student is unique, regardless of a disability, and deserves to feel welcome and a part of the learning environment.

Students verbally or physically act out because they are attempting to communicate a need to the teacher or school. All student behavior, if broken down properly, is based on the need to avoid or gain something. Teachers must try to listen to students’ verbal or physical behavior to “hear” what they need to avoid or gain. A teacher who hears students’ needs can then respond appropriately. If a teacher does not comprehend a student’s need, the behavior will escalate until the teacher or the community hears the student. Sadly, in many extreme cases the escalation results in violence. Modern-day examples include Columbine, Sandy Hook, and now Parkland.

Looking at the most recent tragedy, Parkland, I wonder what antecedent led to such an act of terror. The consequences of the gunman’s actions are easy to determine; he wanted to gain the attention or the perceived respect of his peers and teachers. However, if one, or a handful of, teachers had given him the attention, empathy, compassion, or hospitality he needed to feel accepted and heard, perhaps he would have chosen a different path.

Every day students who do not feel heard walk through the halls of academia. They do not feel loved and deal with ridicule and rejection from their peers in person and on social media. When these students step into a classroom to learn, are they seen as people or statistical outcomes? If the student looks sad, does a teacher offer to help or find someone who can help? If the student is excited and happy, does a teacher ask why? Do the demands of the curriculum and standardized tests cause a teacher to turn a blind eye to the humanity of the student and focus on the task of teaching their subject?

As a teacher, I understand the demands of managing the scope and sequence of a curriculum, standardized tests, legal obligations of individual education programs, behavior intervention plans, committee meetings, grading papers, contacting parents, and living your own personal life. Like our students, I want to be acknowledged and respected; heard and appreciated; and comforted when I am sad and celebrated for accomplishments. Children, especially teenagers, need to know they are heard and seen. They need to know that they have at least one person who will listen to them and be there for them. Students, even if they don’t admit it, see their teachers as surrogate parents. Students crave the acceptance and love of each teacher and want to be seen as individuals.

Teachers and schools need help. In conjunction with safer learning environments, schools should implement efforts to support teachers in authentically connecting with each of their students. Schools should provide:

  • Compassion and kindness training for all teachers.
  • Respite care for special education teachers.
  • Full-time social workers who are dedicated to the mental health of students, working in partnership with special education teachers.

These resources will help teachers be more prepared to connect with and support their students. Learning cannot be forced from a scope and sequence or through a standardized test. Learning happens from respect, acceptance, and safety. If a student feels respect and acceptance from the teacher, she will be in a better emotional and psychological mindset to learn, resulting in a safe learning environment for everyone.

Classroom teachers perform an arduous job, motivated by their love of learning and the children. As a profession, we must put less emphasis on learning outcomes and accountability and greater focus on loving each student in our classroom every single year we teach.

 

 
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