The article’s author, Megan Easton, summarizes Dr. Rawle’s pedagogy of kindness as “a teaching approach rooted in care, mutual respect[,] and inclusion that research has shown enhances students’ learning and well-being.” In Dr. Rawle’s formulation, a pedagogy of kindness is pretty much just what it says: an effort to treat students and their experiences in classrooms as an opportunity to exercise, along with all of our other teacherly chops, an intentionally empathetic and emotionally generous approach that recognizes that students—especially students in this moment, but it’s eternal and universal—are bringing to class not just their notebooks and laptops but also worlds of experience, some traumatic and deeply embedded, some ephemeral, many unknowable and often unrecognized, even by the student. These experiences shape the perspective and even the character of each student, and they must be respected as their realities and accommodated as best we educators can do this—accommodated with kindness.
None of this is new, but I want to make a case here for the term itself: A pedagogy of kindness.
This is not, it needs to be stated lest the concept be misunderstood, either a call to random, isolated acts of kindness (those are fine, to be sure) nor about making things easier for students. In Professor Rawle’s classes, it is more about pathways, what we might call personalized learning. Students have choices, but the aggregate workload doesn’t change—students can simply adjust some things to fit their lives. Rawle also emphasizes that “demonstrating genuine curiosity about students’ lives—inside and outside the classroom and creating opportunities for student feedback are also key to a pedagogy of kindness.” A classroom tradition is a question of the day, like “What is your muddiest point from last week?” or “What gives you hope?” In the next class she shares their responses, along with her own, creating a community of feeling and reflection.
Rawle also takes issue with “what she calls ‘wellness theatre,’ where faculty might send emails to students urging them to practice self-care…. Rather than being an add-on, a pedagogy of kindness should be the cornerstone of course design and teaching practice.” Amen.
Again, none of this is new, and readers may have stocks of examples of a pedagogy of kindness from their own and from colleagues’ practice. But I worry that many current and important conversations about the emotional health of teachers and students are destined to be only artifacts of the pandemic. I can imagine a world in which when, and if, Covid either subsides or becomes so “normal” that we “move on” from pandemic-inspired efforts at emotional accessibility, we will only “remember” our current interest in concepts like mindfulness and self-care.
I spent about 40 years working in schools whose heritage was “progressive” but who have often dared not speak that word. I have been in a room where experts in marketing and communication told the leaders of one of these schools to stop using the “P” word and to strike such words as “nurturing” and “caring” from its institutional vocabulary—lest prospective families and whoever else might hear “academically soft” and “lax” instead; in fact, to start dropping words like “rigorous” and “challenging” more frequently into its public representations. So much for kindness; present ourselves as grinding the little demons into learning machines and toughening them. Paths toward this dreadful goal included competition (we were told that a tiered honor roll—with very few names at the top, of course—was a mark of a school’s academic credibility) and just plain hard work. Proclaim that empathy is weakness and that failure is, well, just plain failure. Fortunately, we quickly got over that phase and soon began to promulgate the idea that empathy is a basic element of learning.
I think that to proclaim a pedagogy of kindness—not in random acts but in intentional work we can do in classrooms and school communities everywhere, all the time—and then to immerse ourselves in pondering such a concept and how it might be enacted, all the time, would be a worthy goal for all members of the teaching profession. Let us, please, reject and discard forever our obsession with words and phrases chosen to instill anxiety and inspire compliance—“rigor” could go first, IMHO—and embrace the idea that true kindness, empathy plus love plus respect plus seeing and hearing others, ought to lie at the heart of meaningful learning.
A pedagogy of kindness, anyone? (And please click the link in paragraph 1 and check out the article.)
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)