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It's Not About Guns

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"It's not about guns. It's not about Asperger's. It's not about bullying. It's not about legislation. You can't legislate compassion." That's the underlying issue, isn't it? Compassion was the focus of Carol Lach's brilliant retirement speech when she left her post at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The essence of that speech appeared as a commentary right here in EdWeek on August 14th.

As leaders of systems, buildings, and classrooms, we know the struggle to legislate away the behaviors because the fundamental cause cannot be addressed except through the human heart. Compassion springs from empathy. Empathy has become a lost value except in times of great tragedy. It is not an everyday practice. Instead, violence abounds, in language, action, and entertainment. One just has to turn on the television to see a growing number of shows that highlight people screaming at each other, calling each other names, turning friends against each other, and even physically hurting each other. There are few, if any, remaining models of civil discourse. We see politicians abandon thoughtful debate in exchange for polarizing phrases and categorically dismissive labeling. Rudeness, aggression, and talking over one another have replaced the ability to have a conversation. After a recent barrage of name calling, a radio show host concluded by saying if there were people who were offended, it was their problem. The news is filled with people killing each other in countries fighting for their beliefs, or in neighborhoods for money, or drugs, or personal vendettas. The bar the media is setting for behavior cannot be much lower.

In our schools, we have been stressed by this ongoing implementation of new and more rigorous curriculum, assessments, and evaluation systems. We are not experiencing empathy or compassion. We must be careful not to let that become an excuse for us to to extend it. It may be a far more difficult time to do it but in hard times it is even more important to do so.

The question arises: are compassion and empathy another thing we have to do OR it is the foundation of everything we do as human beings who have chosen to lead and serve? Can we create micro communities where compassion finds a growing field? What is it we need to be thinking about as we move toward the opening of our schools this fall?

Over this summer, without the opportunity for us to frame the experience, our students have continued learning in the world. We wonder what did our students learn from the killing of Trayvon Martin? The verdict for George Zimmerman? The beating of two gay men outside of a theatre in NYC? Developments regarding medical marijuana? The battles raging in Syria and in Egypt? What lessons did their own lives bring them during the summer? And what about our own lessons? Hopefully, there are some who find strength in compassion, who, themselves, aspire to a community which values both individuality and commonness of humanity. Perhaps, those will make empathy and compassion the bedrock, the foundation, of the actions in our schools. How can we increase our capacity to listen deeply and embed that practice into every interaction?

We can begin by developing these practices within ourselves. It may be more difficult to hold a termination meeting with a long term colleague compassionately and empathetically but it does alter the experience. It may allow us to create a bridge of understanding between the bully and the victim if we can be in both their shoes. Every day we recommit to bringing deep, open, and honest listening to our interactions. We visit the homes of our students, meet the adults in their lives and walk their streets. We become the boundary translator between our students' worlds and our teachers' worlds. At the board table we speak for both with equal passion. Compassion allows for bottom up leadership and system wide responsiveness. We acknowledge others who are courageous enough to act in ways that reveal their capacity to empathize.

Let's distill empathy and compassion to mean the capacity to listen deeply, without judgment, until we can understand the life of the other person. It is captured in the old adage..."walk in their shoes." Simply taking that step, expecting it from each other and ourselves, is the first and most important step to change the culture of our schools. Communities are built locally, person to person, even in this increasingly virtual world. Empathy and compassion are part of the person to person interplay. It is there that there absence also plays out. We learn best when we are safe and in a community of learners. No list of ten things to do, no process for running things, no set of rules can be as effective as simply beginning to open our hearts. Lach is so right. We cannot legislate the thing we need most. It can only come from each of us, a freely offered gift. It can transform us and the others who come to school each day.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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