From Compassionate Schools To A Compassionate Society

This is the 4th and final post in a series on childhood trauma. In the 1st post, I expose my personal reasons for being an example in this struggle to create Compassionate Schools. In the 2nd post, I tell the stories of how children who have walked through my classroom doors have been impacted by trauma. The 3rd post discusses new pathways to creating cultural changes within our schools. Here, in this last post, I connect the dots of EduActivists’ work to other movements through Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed and collaborative activist work I engaged in this summer. Here I make the point that in order to have Compassionate Schools, we also need a compassionate society.

In this post I will discuss the liberation involved in developing compassionate schools and how that liberation is connected to the development of a compassionate society. Who are the leaders and who must be involved in the struggle as examples? How are the genres of activist movements connected to the struggle for a compassionate society?

We are in a stage in fighting education reform where we are gaining power, reaching for the tipping point. While the numbers of children of trauma are increasing in our schools, the reforms themselves are causing trauma, as you can read about in post 2.  One can see that our public schools are becoming schools of trauma. The reformers’ policies have dehumanized schooling, the children, and teachers to the point where schooling itself is traumatic. Children who cry and vomit over high stakes tests. Children and teachers who are punished over test scores. Schools closed causing actual deaths in Chicago for children who must cross gang lines to attend their new schools. Zero Tolerance policies that imprison children for minor infractions. Relay charter schools that treat young black and brown urban youth like animals using compliance training with clicks and demands to walk in silence in the hallways with their hands behind their backs – “prison ready”. And Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil spelling this dehumanization out directly:

“I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer,” said Tillerson during the panel discussion. “What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation.”

The Exxon CEO didn’t hesitate to extend his analogy. “Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested?” American schools, Tillerson declared, “have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.” – Peter Elkind, Fortune Magazine

The real thinking of reformers has been clear to many of us by the way we are being treated – as widgets, cogs in a wheel, “human capital”. What kind of society allows this kind of dehumanization? [The capitalist kind of society built on slave labor.]

Historically children have had the least rights as humans in our culture, several steps below women and minorities as they are not allowed to vote and have little voice in their own protections. Are the children of trauma in public schools a reflection of societal trauma?

“Dehumanization, although a concrete historical fact, is not a given destiny but the result of an unjust order that engenders violence in the oppressors, which in turn dehumanizes the oppressed.” – Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

To fully humanize our schools and our society we must not remain passive. We must not deem reform, oppression, and dehumanization as our destiny.

As EduActivists we all began thinking our unions would surely stand up against the reformers. But surely our unions can magnify the voices of the oppressed, no? They have our union dues at their disposal, access to mainstream media, funded political action and social media tools, mass listserves that provide access to millions, a “seat at the table”…

I, for one, feel frustrated and outraged at times despite a great love for my union. Shouldn’t they be our strongest allies in this movement building? Why does it seem our own teacher union leaders are working with the colonizers?

Why does it seem our own union leadership is sabotaging our movement?

Again, Paulo Freire provides insight.  

In a situation of manipulation, the Left is almost always tempted by a “quick return to power,” forgets the necessity of joining with the oppressed to forge an organization, and strays into an impossible “dialogue” with the dominant elites. It ends by being manipulated by these elites, and not infrequently itself falls in an elitist game, which it calls “realism.”

Manipulation, like the conquest whose objectives it serves, attempts to anesthetize the people so they will not think. For if the people join to their presence in the historical process critical thinking about that process, the threat of their emergence materializes in revolution…One of the methods of manipulation is to inoculate individuals with the bourgeois appetite for personal success. This manipulation is sometimes carried out directly by the elites and sometimes indirectly, through populist leaders.” – Paulo Freire

There is a shift happening in our unionism, particularly in Chicago, New York, LA, Denver, and Seattle – a shift towards social justice unionism. Seattle Education Association and parents won the right for children to play, more time for lunch, improvements in equity and access, and more in their recent strike.

The most powerful testimony came from a parent who was an African immigrant. He gave a first hand account of what it feels like to be starving and told the school board it was unacceptable that his son didn’t receive enough time to eat and is then asked to throw away his food. He relayed to the board that he told his son that he was not allowed to throw the food away and a teacher would have to do it for him. He demanded that the school district allow his son the time he needed not to waste food.

— Jesse Hagopian

The Chicago Teachers Union recently called for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s resignation, citing the ultimate in dehumanization – the  mayoral cover-up of the murder of Laquan MacDonald by Chicago police.

Chambers says union members felt they had to weigh in on the issues of racism and police violence in Chicago.

“An overwhelming majority of CPS students are black and brown children,” she says. “Our students and their family members are the ones getting shot. So we can’t just sit back and ignore what’s happening.” – Micah Uetricht, In These Times

How about our colleagues?

We see children of trauma and fellow teachers dehumanized by reforms and sometimes wonder why they don’t fight back. Are they truly apathetic or like children of trauma, are they “frozen” and “submitting”. Freire explains:

The oppressed, having internalized the image of the oppressor and adopted his guidelines, are fearful of freedom.

Rather than dehumanizing these colleagues further, we must work towards compassionate interactions, include their voices, and find ways to empower.  We must liberate rather than join our oppressors in imposing decisions upon others.  Centering our work around social justice unionism – human rights, compassionate schools for all children and teachers – I believe will provide the moral fortitude for many to join us and colleagues will soon see parents at their sides in support. We must bring the oppressed colleagues, children, and parents into our work. 

Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people–they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress. – Paulo Freire

While we can and MUST work together to develop microcosms of Compassionate Schools, it feels a bit like the chicken and the egg conundrum. As long as we give power to the colonizers, the trauma to children, women, people of poverty, those with special needs, and murders by police of black and brown children like Tamir will be part of our society.  Can we create Compassionate Schools in spite of reforms? Would it take developing of a compassionate society first in order to scale up Compassionate Schools? Would Compassionate Schools create a compassionate society?

Connecting the Dots of Oppression:

Childhood trauma is often linked to domestic violence. It is connected to mass incarnation as children are impacted greatly by having a parent in the prison system. It is no coincidence the school-to-prison pipeline is filled with children suspended or expelled for behaviors that are often a cry for help from children of trauma.  In Michigan children now have lead poisoning due to the negligence of some of the same people trying tocontrol teachers, bust unions, and treat children as if they are disposable.

Climate justice activists connected the #BlackLivesMatter movement to their own. Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil promotes Common Core via propaganda through advertising and recently came out with a statement commodifying children that ignited EduActivists to join climate justice activists in a direct action to #BoycottExxon. See

The oppressed, as objects, as “things”, have no purposes except those their oppressors prescribe for them. – Paulo Freire

Last summer as an EduActivist, I participated in the Backbone Campaign’s LocalizeThis! Art Camp. Activists from all over the country came together to teach, listen, learn, and connect the dots of our movements.  We ended in a collaborative artful action, highlighting the connection of oppression to each of our causes showing the roots of racism, classism, and colonization to be a common thread. The way towards humanization is through love.

If I do not love the world if I do not love life if I do not love people I cannot enter into dialogue. – Paulo Freire

Empowering one another through humanization – Teachers as change agents:

Teachers, through pedagogy are ultimately “change agents”. EduActivists double-down on this concept through “resistance pedagogy”. Popular Resistance describes the stages of our movement and the role of a change agent here:

The role of the change agent is to encourage conversations that are open and listening. We are not dictating that we have all the solutions, but engaging with others, providing an informed opinion and finding solutions together. And we must do more than just educate on one issue, but must show how that issue is related to other issues and the need for systemic change. This requires showing that the underlying world view of the current power structure is wrong and that a paradigm shift is needed. One way that issues get connected is by building coalitions or networks that bring people from different movements together. – Margaret Flowers and Kevin Zeese

As change agents, who then are we aiming to change? 

First as with my personal work described in post 1, we begin with oneself. Self-reflection is critical to being a change maker.

Then, we must include, seek out, and listen – lifting and providing space in solidarity for those oppressed, for the children of trauma, those with special needs, students of color in our classrooms, and all those marginalized most by the power structure.  Those of us who are survivors of childhood trauma must become the examples for and of our own struggle. To resist reforms, teachers must turn inward to discover what we already know to be true. This deep work moves us ever closer towards self-actualization. To reach self-actualization we first must be liberated to become fully human. We must work as adults to liberate ourselves and integrate our past pain with our current work to create Compassionate Schools.

No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors. The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption. (Freire, 1970, p. 54).

Next we must educate and activate others in mass movements, collaborating across struggles with other genres as we are truly one in the same struggle.  In the process we must always work within communities through humanizing all.

Popular Resistance activists Kevin Zeese and Margaret Flowers point out:

…the target of our protests is not the government or a corporation, the target is the people: to educate and mobilize them.

The voices of the children and teachers of trauma must be part of our struggle how we create Compassionate Schools. The voices of all the oppressed members of our society must be not only included, but at the forefront in creating a compassionate society.

One cannot expect positive results from an educational or political action program which fails to respect the particular view of the world held by the people. Such a program constitutes cultural invasion, good intentions notwithstanding. – Paulo Freire

How are the schools we are envisioning different from the schools created by the colonizers/reformers? As noted in Beautiful Trouble:

What is required to transform the world is dialogue, critical questioning, love for humanity, and praxis, the synthesis of critical reflection and action. In short, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is education as a practice of freedom, which Freire contrasts with education as a practice of domination.

The answers to how to create Compassionate Schools and a compassionate society already lie within us. As Beautiful Trouble points out about Freire’s ideas on pedagogy:

He flipped mainstream pedagogy on its head by insisting that true knowledge and expertise already exist within people. They need no “deposits” of information (what Freire calls “banking education”)…

The children of trauma don’t fit inside the reformers’ box.  Trying to push them into the box will break them.  “Banking Education” gives voice to only one language – the language of bankers where children and teachers are mere “human capital”. The poem written by Loris Malaguzzi comes to mind. Here is an excerpt of 100 Languages:

The child has

a hundred languages

(and a hundred hundred hundred more)

but they steal ninety-nine.

The school and the culture

separate the head from the body.

They tell the child:

to think without hands

to do without head

to listen and not to speak

to understand without joy

to love and to marvel

only at Easter and at Christmas.

They tell the child:

to discover the world already there

and of the hundred

they steal ninety-nine.

They tell the child:

that work and play

reality and fantasy

science and imagination

sky and earth

reason and dream

are things

that do not belong together.

To create compassionate schools we must welcome and nurture the other 99 languages. Trauma and in some cases, unsafe adults have already stolen too much from some of us.

I think, like children, teachers have 100 languages – languages the reformers have stolen. Our autonomy and what we already know to be the right way to teach must begin to shine through the darkness. And we must be free to speak in the languages of 100 social justice movements in solidarity.

While this post is written to support children who have experienced trauma, how can we do that without adequate support ourselves? Without taking care of our personal physical and mental health? Without giving voice to all of the other languages of children, teachers, and social justice movements?

Sometimes this deep work can leave one feeling alienated. For some it can seem overwhelming.  As it unfolds inward to become the knowledge we already hold, a sense of liberation is glimpsed.  And when we collaborate to discuss this work with peers, alienation can disappear quickly. Hope comes alive. The work to create a compassionate classroom was begun long ago, but this work will inform every classroom decision, my pedagogy, my EduActivismand my relationships with my colleagues, and with my community.  It will impact how I act in solidarity with other movements.

This winter break has been a reflection time for me on this entire topic. While I am trying to make a safe place for children of trauma, for those with special needs – and of course, for all the children in my classroom – I am creating a space where all children learn the art of compassion.  And I realize how teachers too, need a safe place to work.

This work leads me to a place of deeper love and compassion – love and compassion for myself as a child of trauma, for my family who has gone through the stages of healing with me, for my students and their families, for my colleagues and their families, administration. And new insight from Freire, I see an area that I need to work on – finding love and compassion for the reformers, somehow, if we are to truly have a compassionate society. The reformers can’t take our love and our compassion away.

This work to support children of trauma has led me to realize how important it is to go forward.  That change must start in my self-care and in classroom. While I have rested during break, the work before me will take building, district, and community involvement, listening to the voices of students who experience/d trauma, and including them in creative solutions. For this deep work – perhaps the most important work I will do as a teacher, I must prepare.

Some of the reformers’ data may have to wait. Some of the reforms may be the exact opposite of the necessary interventions I must implement for children, and I will be prepared with the data to prove it. My integrated art lessons and play-based choice times are helping to create that safe place for 100’s of languages. Malaguzzi’s approach involves designing curriculum based on student’s interests, talents, and individual needs.  No scripts. No didactic reforms. I’m fortunate to have a district superintendent who has requested that we put the joy back into our classrooms.  I think he would approve of adding marvel and joy throughout the year. There has to be a way to break the reformers’ rules lest we break the children and in doing so, break ourselves. There has to be a way to create compassionate schools that leaves room for all voices.There has to be a way to refuse to be a cog in the wheel of reformers’ policies that increase trauma.

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.  – Haim G. Ginott, Teacher and Child, A Book for Parents and Teachers

The colonizers – or reformers – are intent on “banking education” and the competitive production of human capital.

We can refuse to further dehumanize children.  We can interact with children, families, and colleagues from a place of compassion and of humanization.  Compassion and humanization can be the learning targets – the objectives we write on the board each day.  We can engage our students in meeting these objectives daily.

Our work is to uncover and construct the radical knowledge within each of us already existing on what it means to be fully human, and to use that knowledge to empower one another – to go forward with courage and love – to create compassionate schools within and for a compassionate society.

Are children and teachers in your building struggling with trauma -personal or professional? How are you working through these challenges? What methods towards liberation are you engaging in that are effective? What other genres of activism are you willing to participate in towards creating a compassionate society? How do you plan to engage the voices of the oppressed in our work to create Compassionate Schools and a compassionate society? What kind of Beautiful Trouble are you creating together with EduActivists and cross-genre activists? 

Part 1: In Search of Safe Adults and Compassionate Schools: This is Personal

Part 2: In Search for Safe Adults and Compassionate Schools:Why We Must Create Compassionate Schools 

Part 3: Being the Safe Adult: In Search of Compassionate Schools

Part 4: Beautiful Trouble: From Compassionate Schools to a Compassionate Society

Susan DuFresne is a kindergarten teacher and activist in the Seattle area. She teaches both general education and special education. Susan has worked in high poverty schools and continues to organize direct actions for social justice. You can follow her on Twitter @GetUpStandUp2.

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