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Making space for compassion in education

As is the case in many countries, the COVID pandemic continues to wreak havoc in Australian education. While many universities and schools are completely online because of lockdown, others are now experimenting with ‘hybrid’ models that combine online and face-to-face teaching and learning. But efforts are tentative. In such uncertain times, education leaders, teachers and support staff are nervous about committing to what many students and parents increasingly long for – a ‘normal’ education and student experience with face-to-face at school/university components.

This nervousness is well-founded. While many are very keen to get vaccinated, issues with adequate supply has led our vaccine rollout to be colloquially renamed a ‘vaccine stroll out’. I’ve lost exact count but I think it’s around 12 million Australians in lockdown this week and less than one third of the adult population vaccinated. Ensuring ‘COVID-safe’ face-to-face education in these circumstances is tricky and, not to put too fine a point on it, connected to potential life and death scenarios.

In this set of circumstances, it is challenging to focus on the core ‘business’ of teaching and learning. This challenge is exacerbated by the fact that those designing, facilitating and supporting the education are human beings who are themselves living in and through the pandemic. The work of teachers and education support staff is complex, at-times messy, deeply human and relies on individual passion and goodwill as well as qualifications, knowledge, skills and experience. And then of course there are the parents supervising learning at home.

I attended a seminar recently at one of my alma maters, Macquarie University, led by a well-known Australian author, Hugh McKay: the importance of compassion was central. Arguing that the most significant thing about us as people is that we share a common humanity, that we humans all belong to a social species, that we are “hopeless” in isolation and that we need others to nurture and sustain us, McKay underscored the importance of compassion and kindness with one another in our current shared pandemic context.

McKay suggested the pandemic has been a mass experiment around what happens to people when they are isolated. The results have included more mental health concerns, more suicidal ideation, more domestic violence, among many other negative outcomes. But also, potentially, more time for introspection and for deep consideration of what is important to us. Many of us have more clearly understood how crucial our social and personal connections are.

McKay proposes that many of us have previously found useful ‘hiding places’ in ambition, IT devices and consumerism, which have promoted individualism and competitiveness and a greater focus on ourselves, than on our role(s) in families, communities and society. As I reflect on education, and on life more generally, I can’t help but think he has a point.

As we co-create ‘COVID-normal’ education in schools and universities, I wonder if we might all find a bigger space for our humanity, our compassion and our kindness to each other. Not only might that bring a better experience of education related work for those of us who work in that space, the quality and impact of our education might also improve as a result.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the blog of the Society for Research in Higher Education in April 2021.