Always Default to Compassion
By my definition, she is a special missionary. The article she wrote doesn’t talk about which religion she follows, or that she is of any religious persuasion at all. Yet, as an urban middle school teacher where 99% of the students, because of grinding poverty, receive free lunch, she fits that definition in my book.
Elizabeth Peyton teaches at an urban middle school for refugee and immigrant kids. In describing herself she writes, “I spend all day with the most challenging, hilarious, exhausting group of people I can imagine, and I’m extremely grateful for it!” Her love, enthusiasm, and insight caught my eye and the points she made in her article took on a special significance to me.
A 12 year veteran teacher, Peyton admits that early in her career she tried to rely on everything from discipline models that sweated the small stuff to positive reward systems that affirmed the good stuff. Such strategies might in some way work for some, but she has embraced another approach. “Here’s the secret I’ve found for working with poor kids,” she writes. “You ready? It’s pretty simple. Always default to compassion.”
What does compassion look like and sound like? She offers –
A kid shows up late. “Everything ok. We missed you.”
A kid doesn’t have his homework for the fourth time this week. “Hey, is something going on that making it hard for you to get your work done? This is really important, and I want to make sure you’re able to do what you need to do.”
A kid throws a tantrum in class. “Wow, you’re really struggling with self-control. Can you tell me why? Are you hungry or tired?”
For those whose basic needs are being met, it is all too easy to underestimate the trauma kids experience outside of school (and sometimes, unfortunately, in school). When mom and dad are under stress, when living conditions are at risk on a daily basis, when it is “tough to sleep because people are constantly screaming or shooting off guns in your neighborhood,” it is hard to get homework done and even to be able to concentrate in school.
Peyton shared a situation she worked through that really represents what she is trying to say –
Starting with compassion increases the odds that you’ll find out what’s really going on and be able to actually help your students. A couple of years ago, one of my girls stopped doing her homework and paying attention in class. As a new teacher, I’d have assigned a detention and hoped that solved the problem.
Instead, I asked her what was going on. I found out that her dad – her sole surviving parent – had been arrested the week before for driving without a license. This seventh grader had been living on her own for close to a week, and getting herself to school on time every single day, but the food was running out and she was hungry and afraid. We bought her groceries and bailed her dad out, and her grades went right back to where they should have been.
Compassion builds relationships,
where a more aggressive approach will burn bridges.
Will kids ever take advantage of this kind of compassion? Peyton says that it has happened to her, but not very often. Compassion more often leads to the truth, and for that reason, she points out, “it’s better to err on the side of understanding than to be overly harsh.”
Punitive discipline is harmful wherever and whenever it is used, but especially so to vulnerable students. In the end, Peyton offers, “Compassion is the way out. I don’t promise it’ll solve all your classroom management problems, but it’ll go a long way. Treat a kid like a decent person and, more often than not, he or she will act like one.”
I don’t know if she has had Choice Theory training, but if not, Elizabeth Peyton is well on her way to being a Choice Theory teacher. Because they tap into principles and the deeper truths of life, she discovered the ineffectiveness and harm of the Deadly Habits and the effectiveness and healing of the Caring Habits.
Besides William Glasser, an architect of Choice Theory, I recall another choice theorist who would very much agree with Ms. Peyton. That other choice theorist, Ellen White, an insightful, and even inspired educator, wrote in 1903 –
In gentleness teachers will set before the wrongdoer his errors and help him to recover himself. Every true teacher will feel that should he err at all, it is better to err on the side of mercy than on the side of severity. Education, p. 294
I wrote a book comparing William Glasser’s ideas to those of Ellen White, an unlikely duo, yet their beliefs are amazingly similar. That book is called Soul Shapers: A Better Plan for Parents and Educators (2005). Should I ever update Soul Shapers, I would definitely want to include the ideas of Elizabeth Peyton, too.
Just a reminder: I will be teaching a summer class at PUC based on Choice Theory concepts called The Better Plan. It would be great to have you be a part of it. Get in touch with me if you have questions.
The Better Plan 1 June 26-29
It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are.