Explore Nueroscience in Education with Dr. Lori Desautels

Compassionate Presence/ Are we Preparing Students to Live Outside the Walls of Schools?

Compassionate Presence
“How May I Serve You?”
Dr. Lori Desautels
Marian University
Education and learning are as natural to us as breathing. It simply occurs in the spirit and soul of every human being. “Thriving” is our natural state of life and life is meant to work and our purpose is to thrive! If the purpose of education is to live outside the walls of education, then why or how do we end up teaching in ways where Language Arts, Math and Science assessments define our adult entry into this diverse and populous world; externally labeling us successful, smart and college bound? Does going to college equate to a successful life abundant with well-being? Are we respectful and accepting of our differing preferences, perspectives, innate gifts and passions?
Make Your Mark Heavy and Dark

On a recent Friday afternoon, an unemployed twenty-year old posted a message on YouTube, simply offering to “be there” for anyone who needed to talk. “I never met you, but I do care,” he said. By the end of the weekend, he had received more than five thousand calls and text messages from strangers taking him up on his offer.

(Retold by Dr. Howard Cutler and The Dalai Lama, from The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World.)

What kind of mark do we leave on our students, our children and our own lives? Do we value the entertainment and professional sports industry to the degree of insanity, paying twenty to thirty times the income of that of an effective, caring and creative educator’s salary? How do our children and young adults perceive this societal and cultural truth? Do we truly value education in a way that we are willing to re-assess, explore, question and discuss a novel and philosophical perspective buried at the root of teaching and learning that shifts the way we prioritize, view and act upon the present dysfunctional educational system? If students are not learning, then education is not happening, and as Sir Ken Robinson clearly states in his revised tenth anniversary edition Out of Our Minds, we need to clarify and redefine the purpose of education, and this begins with personalizing it. We can’t afford not to!
There are three themes that run throughout this contribution. These themes do not provide answers, solutions or suggestions for expedient and radical changes, but they do invite the reader to explore the roots of a system that is crying out for changes at a macro and micro level of functioning.
1. How do the personal and collective perspectives of educators, parents and students affect their happiness, success and motivation in school and in life? Do we hold a victim perspective in which experiences, actions and words just occur without our conscious or subconscious participation, or do we hold a perspective that embraces self-design and co-creation?
2. Questions: What do you need? How may I serve you? What can I do? Questions fuel our minds with wonder and options, and they are vehicles for creative solutions and critical thinking skills. When we ask another what he or she needs or desires, we open doors of resistance as defense mechanisms break down and begin to fall away. Building relationships through inquiry, while sustaining them with a steadfast “trust,” not only deepens learning, but creates a safe place for self-expression and exploration.
3. Story-telling, personal and communal, has the power to affect the way we ingest, understand and manipulate information and experiences. I once read that there are no new stories or ideas, just new ways of presenting these reoccurring themes and tales. When we listen to another’s storyline, we may embrace an epiphany, an insight that we have long awaited inside our own lives. It just may be that word, expression, paragraph or restated theme that strikes a chord in our minds and hearts, changing the way we walk through this world.

Although these themes do not provide answers to the questions posed, my hope in sharing personal narratives, inquiry, and research, based on perspectives, positive psychology and the process of happiness, is to engage the reader in exploring positive shifts that begin inside one heart, one mind and one individual at a time. How may I serve you? This is where the trajectory of educational reform begins and ends. As educators, and parents, have we become so concerned about effective instruction, accountability, teacher evaluation, higher and competitive test scores, global economic rivalry, and college acceptance that the joy of teaching and learning has been severed from the creative equation and process of teaching and learning? As parents and educators, are we feeling stressed to the point of exhaustion, apathy and indifference with changes that feel out of our control? Open up and look inside. Look inside your own heart at the perspectives that keep you churning uncomfortably, wearingly or happily inside a pool of emotions and thoughts. Make your mark heavy and dark…

You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.
~ Christopher Columbus
Teachers change lives! For better or worse, their presence with students affects change. School environments, administrative policies, and content expertise do not hold a candle to the gentle “personal philosophy” that radiates from teachers who create connections and relationships with their students. Techniques, strategies, and methodologies are important, but we must begin with a compassionate philosophy, an educational spirituality, as the building block for securing happy, effective, and creative students, teachers, and parents. This philosophy must be discussed and shared because as simple as it is, we have forgotten the power of a compassionate presence. Compassion discussed, revered and implemented is the warm conversation we must return to. It is a conversation that must become solution oriented rather than problem oriented, which takes incredible awareness, reflection, and a shift in attitude. Spirituality and education? Be wary of linking the two together, because we are a nation and world that appears to stress competition, growing global economies and mastery of curriculum interspersed with rigor and assessment, assessment, and more assessment.
Read the newspapers, technology links, and headlines. Don’t discuss the communion of education and spirituality unless you are referring to parochial or private school culture. This is public education, paradoxically, an entity that is starving for a compassionate unity of function, but emphasizes assessment, higher test scores and turn around programs to the detriment of addressing the social and emotional needs of every child and adolescent.

Why would we need a spiritual, compassionate educational foundation? Let me ask you a question. How would you like to “feel felt?” “Feeling Felt” is a term coined by Dr. Dan Seigel, psychiatrist, author and advocate for “mindful awareness,” a strategy implemented to focus attention and awareness in everyday experiences. Feeling felt is what we all yearn for at the core of our being. Students who “feel felt” begin to feel successful and capable, demonstrating improvement on test scores, self-regulation and levels of motivation. They are able to apply their latent potential and prior knowledge in and outside of school, complying with rules and regulations even though they disagree.

Do you feel felt? Do you feel understood by those you deem important and significant in your life? This concept and quality of character development in its finest moment rests at the core of educational reform. Yet, “feeling felt” is initiated when we learn to take care of ourselves; when we nourish our bodies with adequate sleep, nutritious food, and exercise. We begin to fill our minds with positive thoughts, creative options, and a bit more hope. Often times, this is not easy when we are sitting in the habitual trenches of family and educational upheaval and change. Yet, when we practice listening to that intuitive inner teacher, the heart, we strengthen and multiply our creative alternatives and choices for problem-solving. Creative visualization and quiet reflection literally change our experiences, thoughts and words when we are receptive to the possibilities.

We can ill afford not to begin with this philosophy of compassionate presence, because the research is exploding with findings and studies that the brain is wired for relationships, and that positive emotion and optimism, coupled with feelings of self-worth and success, initiate motivation and drive learning, retention and retrieval of knowledge to new heights. The desire to feel successful deepens learning and is the emotional prerequisite for applicable intelligence and a process for happiness, intimately addressing the emotional and social aspects of education.

One year ago, on a Saturday afternoon, I desired nothing more than to write the final words of my manuscript. I received an invitation from a graduate student who asked me to have a sushi lunch and talk about our school years. As the green tea was poured, she looked at me, hesitated and said, “Lori, it has been a tough few weeks, and I want to tell you what has happened.” Candace squirmed a bit, played with her chopsticks, and then began to share this story.
Javier’s Story

Javier became my student in mid-November after being kicked out of his large high school for absences. It did not take long for me to understand the reason Javier was absent so much from his previous school—he was reading at a fourth grade level and had already been retained three times in his life, making him 16 years old in the 9th grade. Javier avoided school because he did not feel successful, but that changed once we started working together. Javier began to come to school regularly, worked hard in school without any behavior problems, and even happily attended Saturday tutoring to get additional help. Al-though Javier showed tremendous progress with me and an intense desire to learn, his progress was not fast enough for my school principal, who decided immediately after winter break that it was time for Javier to find a new school. The school I worked at had just opened, and my principal was concerned that Javier would bring our End-Of-Course Assessment scores down.

I did not fully understand the resoluteness of my principal’s words until four weeks later, when my principal suspended Javier for three days for wearing black shoes instead of the required white, on an afternoon when I was out of the building. Upon returning to school, I learned of the incident and was extremely upset since the typical punishment for dress code violations was an after-school detention. When I inquired about this unusual disciplinary action, my principal again reiterated that it was time for Javier to find a new school.
Javier and his mother were required to meet with the principal prior to his being allowed back into school after his three-day suspension. Javier’s mother asked me to come with them to the meeting because I had established a strong and trusting relationship with the family. While being forced to wait for thirty minutes before the principal would meet with us, the three of us watched as five children walked through the office wearing black shoes!

Once the meeting began, my principal opened the meeting by telling Javier how far behind he was academically compared to his peers and that it was time for him to find a new school. Javier and his mother explained that this was the school they wanted, so my principal shifted back to the issue of the black shoes. Javier explained that he and his mother had been evicted the day he was suspended and had been homeless for the past three days. His mother would not have enough money to purchase him shoes for two weeks, so he wondered if he could wear the black shoes until that time. My principal forcefully said, “No. He needs to have the shoes today or he is being kicked out.” I offered to purchase Javier a pair of white shoes in order for him to remain at school, but his mother turned to me and said in Spanish, “It is not about the shoes. The principal no longer wants my son here. It is time for us to find a new place to go.”

With those words, Javier was gone from school and my life. Statistically, there is little chance now for Javier to ever graduate from high school. He is currently homeless, Latino, speaks English as a second language, has been raised in a single-parent home, and has been retained al-ready three times in his life. With such ease, my principal traded Javier’s future for one less “fail” on the standardized test at the end of the year. As a teacher, this experience makes me wonder what the goal of education has become. When I chose education as a career, it was to work with the tough cases like Javier in order to change my students‟ life trajectories, not to allow them to become another sad statistic.

Following Candace’s story, I just sat there. I couldn’t find any words to describe how I was feeling, or more honestly, what Javier and his mother must have experienced and felt. I share this story because no matter the grade level, age or gathered experiences from teachers and students, educators must embrace and integrate the emotional standard of compassion, extending to our parents and students the power of “feeling felt.” Compassion is defined as “a combination of feeling for someone else, experiencing the suffering and a positive move to reduce the suffering of others.” Are we truly compassionate with one another? Do we extend to one another even a small invitation to see and express what is possible and all that is going well? As parents and educators, we must begin to implement this emotional support that drives all that we are and do in and out of school.

I can’t type fast enough as I almost feel desperate to share these words, because students like Javier comprise the intellect, the emotional intelligence and heart to be successful, to contribute to another’s well-being and to exercise their innate intelligent birthright. However, administrators and teachers hold the power to nurture or kill it off. I am grateful for Candace’s presence in Javier’s life, and it is my hope that a part of him will remember all that is possible, and what this special teacher saw and nurtured inside him.

One final thought comes to mind focusing on teacher effectiveness, learning outcomes and student growth. It has been brought to my attention and to the attention of educators across the country that the future platforms for assessment of teachers that state and national political and educational reformers will be putting into place will qualify and quantify student growth based on standardized test scores in each classroom and school. This is precisely the reason that the aforementioned administration at Javier’s school wanted him out. Candace is one of the most effective educators I have known, creating relationships, building a sense of self-esteem and incrementally raising academic achievement, but her students still fall far behind. She is challenged with a diverse culture of children and adolescents who do not fit into the western world’s educational factory model of instruction and assessment. I realize there is not a perfected measurement for our diverse, dynamic and vulnerable learners, but how can we implement such ineffective, short-sighted instruments knowing all that we do about our nation’s growing and rich cultural diversity?
We claim that children in our inner city schools are not learning but that is incorrect. These children learn everyday and in some way, much too soon before children should learn these things… and we fail to notice what it is they know and have learned.
Through one lens I see: Assessment, Common Core Standards, Charter Schools verses Public Schools, No Child Left behind, Race to the Top, Teacher Evaluations, Impoverished Environments , Failing Schools and a No Excuse Culture Through another lens I see: Hopefulness, Resiliency, Optimism, Experiences changing the Brain, Emotional Engagement, Enthusiasm, and Inquiry.
I observe teachers; new and veteran teachers trying to save the souls of the world and in the meantime, their hearts and minds grow weary, tired, feeling depleted, diminished and overwhelmed. They begin to mirror what they see in their students. I am concerned because when negative emotion overrides positive emotion, immune systems are compromised, cognitive skills narrow, and solutions and change opportunities become stuck and frozen in repetitive thought processes.
There has been much recent work in the field of educational neuroscience, tapping into those social and emotional skills that can be learned and are an integral part of well-being as we generate solutions, creatively think through problems, emotionally enter into sustaining relationships, managing our lives with improved thinking and positive affect. Our neurobiology is wired for relationships, empathy, stories and service! We have quietly forgotten this in this time of standardized testing and data driven instruction that our neurobiology is wired for pleasure, patterns, novelty and prediction. When we emotionally engage our students, tapping into their unique brains, we begin to create dialogue and questions that that can create capacity, rewiring and strengthening neural connections based on enriched experiences. But most important, in this process is our own evolution and the possibilities that we generate when we self-reflect, question, and serve one another. When we begin to feel better our worlds shift and nothing propels our personal well-being more than service.
“The everyday experiences we provide in our classrooms and homes can structurally and functionally change the brain”
National Core Standard—Compassionate Curriculum

A compassionate curriculum will be explored and discussed in three parts. First and foremost, we must ask one another what we need. How may I serve you? When we do not understand the needs and thoughts of one another, tempers flare, agitation brews, and we lose sight of the aptitudes, skills, and gifts each of us contributes to this educational cauldron of diversity. Misunderstanding directs our actions. Secondly, we must listen where understanding another’s mind and heart is activated. We listen in a space where we do not listen to respond, but listen to understand. The third component of a compassionate curriculum is “self-reflection coupled with creative design.” When we understand the needs of our students, parents, children and colleagues, we can begin to create meaningful and relevant subject matter, experiences, and opportunities that germinate a desire to be invested in this educational process.

Now we must include the most significant interpersonal skill that all people need when creatively relating to one another- empathy. When we empathize with our students, colleagues, and parents, we intuitively open our eyes to a perspective that might not have been discovered or understood before asking the question, “What do you need? How may I serve you?” Next, at a distinct interpersonal depth, we listen beneath behaviors and even words. Listening for direction and feedback, we are able to design ways to stay emotionally connected with increased understanding. This is the place where education begins and ends. When we guide our students to reach “within,” to the heart, we inadvertently discover our passions, aptitudes and strengths as well. Old habits die hard, and it is only through practice and repetition that innovative ways of relating to one another, along with new experiences, become permanent.

Before you read another page, try this little experiment. If you have found yourself struggling with someone—a family member, business partner, co-worker, etc.—feeling agitated, annoyed, or misunderstood, approach the person and the situation in a novel way, with an intention to ask and listen: How can I make this easier for you? What do you need? How can I help? Then observe. Observe the angst, anger and frustration gradually slip away as the question is posed and received with a bit of surprise, sincerity and authenticity. This is where the magic of discovering empathy for another begins to open pathways of understanding and creative exploration. The processes of learning and teaching are now present and activated as cooperative and collaborative components, where broadened perspectives drive compassion and ultimately breed exceptional teaching and learning.

Isn’t it time to place angry and agitated nationalism, separatism, world wars, exorbitant military spending, and an intense intolerance of one another into a locked box? Isn’t the classroom the place where emotional and social skills are nurtured, diversity discussed, and dialogues begun? This worn-out container of conflicted notions holds the old stories of pedagogy and political baggage no longer applicable in this world brimming with possibility of global communication and collaboration. There is no greater time for implementing creative service to one another, embracing a conversation that holds compassion in high esteem and a national standard that will enhance the acquisition of educational content and skills needed in this ever-changing world.

I am excited for the day when my children and grandchildren will be video conferencing with students from Japan, India and China who together will create a communication and performance-based assessment that will align our countries with a deepened respect for the rich diversity each holds, rather than worrying and placing competitive edges inside the hearts and souls of those who were born to relate, to inquire and wonder! We now begin…

This work I do is an offering
from my hand and heart.
Let the imagination awaken the power that
is within each student, releasing healing communion throughout the world.
~Shelley Richardson

Cutler, Howard, MD, and His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. The Art of Happiness in a Troubled World. Doubleday, 2009. p. 3
Desautels, Lori. How May I Serve You? Revelations in Education. Park East Press, 2012, p. 1-3, 5-9.
Kaufeldt, Martha. Begin With The Brain. Corwin Press, 2010, p.2.
Seigel, Dan, MD. Mindsight. Bantam Books, 2010. p.62-63.

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