A Pedagogy of Kindness: Compassion in the Classroom

New year, new semester, new courses, new students. Same me.

For me, the excitement of a new semester is accompanied by the same anxieties that I had as a student. What do my professors expect of me? How many readings are there per week? How many assignments are there, and how much are they worth? Will I know anyone in this course? Am I going to stay afloat?

I barely stayed afloat last year. You know the saying “one step at a time,” I could only manage “one bum shuffle at a time” on the best of days. What got me through the year? Kindness and compassion. From family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.

The theme of kindness and compassion rounded off the year 2020. The University Affairs’ “2020: Canadian Higher Education in Review” featured an article about increasing compassion towards students, while the University of Toronto News highlighted kindness and compassion initiatives across campus. Flexibility, trust, and care generate a pedagogy of kindness.

Cate Daniel (2019) distils a pedagogy of kindness to two things: “believing people, and believing in people.” Sounds simple, right?

Kindness requires us to recognize our different positionality, power, and identity. When a student tells me they mixed up the time zone and missed the deadline, I believe them. When a student tells me they are sick and will submit the assignment the following week, I trust them. No questions asked. What happens if students are not telling the truth? Jeff Janowick addresses this concern in his “Pedagogy of Kindness” video. As Jeff points out, students do have reasons for not submitting an assignment, but sometimes, students feel that their reasons are not “good enough.” As a result, students may come up with another explanation that they perceive would be acceptable to the instructor. As an instructor, I believe what my students tell me. I understand that it is not easy to approach instructors. I did not talk to any of my professors until the last year of my undergraduate studies. So what if a student is lying to me? It does not cost me anything to believe my students.

Believing in students means levelling power dynamics and creating a collaborative space. I want my students to have agency and ownership over the course. In my fourth-year seminar, students can choose the course topics, activities, assessments, and due dates. In terms of universal design, providing students with the opportunity to curate their course generates multiple means of engagement, representation, and action and expression. My job as an educator is to foster learning. Students are my partners in this endeavour. (For more about the process of partnership, explore the open-access journal International Journal for Students as Partners.)

Part of being kind means being kind to ourselves. I achieve this by being transparent with my students. I am forthcoming about my abilities and capacity. Ultimately, I want my learners to believe and trust me. This semester, I will be testing a new strategy inspired by the South Korean live-streaming trend, Gongbang (공방), a study broadcast. Students will be able to join me weekly in live “focus work sessions” as I attempt to work from home. These sessions help both the students and I stay accountable. The sessions also offer learners a peek into my academic life. Instructors are just like students; we have readings to read, papers to write, emails to avoid, etc. These focus work sessions do not replace student hours (aka office hours, see “No More Lonely Office Hours”). The focus work sessions are comparable to study groups or writing groups. The main difference is that instead of studying or writing with my fellow instructors, I will be working with my students, whom I regard as partners.

One partnership idea that I would like to try is syllabus annotations. Cate Denial describes how students can annotate the syllabus and contribute to developing policies (Think UDL, 2020). This strategy allows learners to reflect on the process of course design and insert their voices into the course structure. A syllabus is not a contract set in stone (see “The Long or the Short of Syllabus Design”); instead, a syllabus is a space for conversation and reflection.

Kindness and compassion require care. As Sue Clegg and Stephen Rowland (2010) note, the academic culture of carelessness results from the “enterprise university.” Practicing a pedagogy of kindness is not about “being nice.” Nor is it about obligations and requirements. Instead, practicing kindness is about reverting to the fundamentals of being human: we feel, we connect, we struggle (Reece & Stacoviak, 2019).

Works Cited

Clegg, S., and Rowland, S. (2010). Kindness in practice and academic life. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 31(6): 719–735. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25758494

Daniel, C. (2019). A Pedagogy of Kindness. Hybrid Pedagogy. https://hybridpedagogy.org/pedagogy-of-kindness/

Jabakhanji, S. (2020). South Korean online trend helps GTA students recreate group study while physically distancing. CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/online-south-korean-trend-gta-students-study-group-1.5519018

Kankowick, J. (2020). Pedagogy of kindness. Lansing Community College: Learning Together. https://cte.openlcc.net/learningtogether/2020/05/04/pedagogy-of-kindness/

Reece, M. & Stacoviak, A. (2019). The fundamentals of being human. Changelog: Brain Science. https://changelog.com/brainscience/1

Think UDL. (2020). An Online Pedagogy of Kindness with Cate Denial. https://thinkudl.org/episodes/an-online-pedagogy-of-kindness-with-cate-denial

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