4 Ways We Can Show More Grace, Empathy and Compassion in Our School Communities


by | 01.14.21

Quincy Hills is an educator in Georgia. Follow him on Twitter @OurKidsMatter_.

I was very humbled by an experience I had last March, after the switch to distance learning. I was driving to go pick up some groceries, and I saw three of our students sitting on a curb with a Chromebook. I thought, “What in the world are they doing?” They told me they were working on eLearning. “Okay,” I said, “but why out here?” They told me they were using the store’s wifi. They didn’t have internet access at home, so they were trying to get their work done from the curb.

It was a reminder to me: Our students’ lives aren’t all the same. This is a hard time. We have to be attuned to the varied situations unfolding around us. The changes that COVID-19 forced on us have called for new ways of thinking about what it means to take care of our students and create feelings of support and community. In the past, we’re used to calling home when kids don’t do their assignments and focusing on “accountability” when it comes to attendance – but these circumstances are different. In many cases, kids are trying. Families are trying. We’re all trying.

This year, my school community is teaching with both face-to-face and virtual learning models. It’s different for teachers, kids and families – and it’s challenging. I know a lot of my fellow educators began the school year with big plans about how to support kids, and I know important work is happening in school communities everywhere. I see teachers doing amazing things every day. At the same time, of course we’ve run into unexpected challenges – and of course we’ve had days that feel tough. 

I think one way we can reset on the tough days is by focusing on those core qualities: grace, empathy and compassion. Here are some strategies that are working for me:

1. We can reach out to students who aren’t connecting in our virtual classrooms by using the technology they’re using.

I used to have a rule in my classroom: No TikTok until 4 p.m. But I’ve had to do a 180 and say, “Actually, no. We’re going to use TikTok.” In the spring, we had kids who we were just trying desperately to reach. We were trying to make sure that these kids were taken care of – that they were accounted for. So, I would make little TikTok videos for students that said, “Hit like, and that lets me know that you’re okay.” It was a new way to take “attendance” – and a different approach to what it meant to check in. I would share assignment details over TikTok, too. 

At first, some of my colleagues laughed at me, but then other teachers started trying it, too. I was having above 90% attendance, and some of the kids that we hadn’t been able to find were now engaging with me. I was able to quickly say, “Well, they checked in on this date, this date and this date – based on their interactions on TikTok.” When we’re trying to reach kids who aren’t connecting, we need to keep it basic. 

2. We can foster connections among students, so class feels like something they don’t want to miss.

After we made the switch to distance learning, I felt like I was a party planner, trying to get the kids who were used to face-to-face learning to join lessons on a computer. With everything going on, students are not just waking up saying, “Hey, I want to go on a computer and sit there for eight hours.” Our classroom, with all of us there, has to feel like a party that students don’t want to miss – and that will only happen if we invest time in fostering students’ connections with one another: giving them space to chat, get to know each other and build that sense of community. I set up little incentives: whichever class had the most people at the “party” would get a little prize. So, the students held each other accountable. They’d say, “We only had 96%. We need two more people.” So, they were reaching out to each other, and inviting peers to the “party,” and making sure everyone had what they needed to get in there.  

3. We can stay flexible with due dates and assessments. 

I always want my students to feel like their progress and learning are more important than my calendar. Being flexible with dates and deadlines is a way we can give ourselves grace as teachers, too. We can be vulnerable and honest and say, “Look, y’all, I know we said the due date was here, but we need a little more time.” Once we model that flexibility, students begin to feel like they can share that they need more time with a concept or an assignment. We’re all teaching and learning in unusual conditions, and we need to leave space to monitor and adjust. 

 4. We can offer kids a fresh start – no matter how far into the school year we are.

We all came into this school year weighed down by our experiences of last year – but we’ve got to shake last year off of us. Nobody’s the same as they were in March, May, June, September or even yesterday. I think we need to be ready to wipe the slate clean for kids. If you’re in a place where the relationship isn’t there yet with some students, or if you have students who have had a slow start this school year, let the kids know you want to start fresh. Give them the same kind of energy you’d give a kid you’d never met before. 

With all that’s happening, I think it helps to think small. Here are a few questions we can think about right now, to make sure we’re teaching with grace, empathy and compassion: 

  • If I have kids who aren’t connecting, can I turn to technology they are already using? 
  • What is one thing I can do tomorrow to deepen students’ connections with one another, so class starts to feel more like a party they don’t want to miss?
  • As I set due dates and assessment dates, how can I communicate that I care more about students’ progress than my calendar? 
  • Who are the students who need a fresh start, even now in October? What can I do to give them that fresh start, so we can build our relationship from there?
  • Thinking about assignments, attendance, assessments and lessons – what small changes can I make now to show more grace, empathy and compassion? 

For more on prioritizing connections during distance learning, check out ASCD’s piece on maintaining connections and prioritizing student supports during virtual learning.


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