Teaching and the Art of Compassion

By Nataliya Kharchenko

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.

“Compassion” is usually perceived as a way of feeling and understanding other person’s suffering and implies the willingness to share someone’s sorrow and attempts to alleviate it if possible. Not surprisingly that compassion is often associated with synonyms like pity, sympathy, empathy, and even love in a broad sense. Besides being a common human emotion, empathy, according to Fromm (2009), is a necessary norm of the art of psychoanalysis, and he asserted that a psychoanalyst “must be endowed with a capacity for empathy with another person and strong enough to feel the experience of the other as if it were his own” (p. 193). Moreover, in order to be capable of feeling empathy, one should master the art of love since “understanding and loving are inseparable” (Fromm, 2009, p.193). If we follow his chain of thought, we may conclude that compassion, like love and psychoanalysis, requires some form of mastery and discipline. Fromm’s (2009) approach is somewhat contradictory to a well-known assumption that compassion is one of the natural inborn human capacities praised by ancient philosophers and proclaimed as a universal virtue in all religions. While compassion is among the primary human values, our present-day reality with its ongoing military conflicts and terror attacks illustrates that every person, irrespectively of his or her background, may interpret compassion differently.

Should we view compassion as a religious virtue, a natural inborn part of our personality or a socially imposed expectation? Is our compassion ever productive, especially if we are unable to mitigate other’s suffering and feel helpless? Compassion, like probably any human emotion and feeling, is contradictory in itself; its multifaceted nature depends on individuals’ hidden motives for compassion. Is compassion always sincere, or is it one more evidence of power imbalance between the strong and the weak, the rich and the poor, the fortunate and the less privileged? Despite our best intentions and proclaimed readiness to assure other human fellow that we know how it feels (because we used to be in “their shoes”), nobody can actually truly experience or feel exactly what other person does due to our individual differences in facing challenges and struggles, our pain intolerance, our emotional stability and other personal characteristics since every human experience is unique in itself despite the fact that we all may go through more or less prescribed life trajectories.

Should we assume that everyone is capable of feeling compassion or only those people with similar life experiences? Do we always feel compassion to everyone who deserves it, or do we have other feelings that might be in the way, so instead of compassion we feel satisfaction or even revenge, and, if not in public, then to oneself, we admit that it served them right for they deserve nothing but misery? Are we capable of feeling compassion for people we dislike and those who are in a situation we have never experienced? Etymologically, compassion implies “suffering with the other” (Poppo, 2006), but if we are unable to relive and share someone’s pain we have never been exposed to, is it really compassion or just some superficial feeling we are inclined to show due to our social upbringing and expectations from people around us? White (2008) states that Rousseau puts imagination as a necessary precondition for compassion in case people do not really share the same experience and misery; under these circumstances, “imaginative identification” should be sufficient to provoke a true compassion. While imagination is a powerful device, it has its flaws as well since it may be close to fantasy, unrealistic and misleading, so the lack of “accuracy” of our imagination does not guarantee experiencing exactly what another person does.  Despite assumptions that compassion is synonymic to pity (Jonas, 2010), it seems that pity is just a minor general emotion of feeling sorry for someone who happens to be in trouble, while compassion requires deeper emotional and mental efforts from the bottom of someone’s heart; pity may be attributed to any sight of misery, thus virtually everyone should be able to express the feelings of pity, while compassion is a prerogative, or even a privilege, of not so many.

Can too much suffering and misery affect human nature and ability to feel compassion, in other words, if people are overwhelmed by their own tragedy can they become indifferent to the sufferings of others? Why do some situations, people and experiences pull at our heartstrings, while others leave us indifferent? Rousseau claimed we are able to feel compassion or pity only towards those who are in a worse situation than we are, while envy would prevent us from being compassionate for those who are generally happier than we are (as cited in White, 2008). Should we automatically dismiss the possibility of compassion towards those who are healthy, happy, rich and powerful? Does this mean that compassion is fate of the unfortunate only?  

While compassion is more or less expected from all human beings, for some specific occupations this feeling is considered almost an indispensable asset. We expect compassion from doctors, nurses, psychotherapists, teachers and all those who take care of our body, soul and emotions probably more than from anyone else, but what is the most effective and adequate way of expressing compassion? Are words only sufficient? Can charity and donations compensate the absence or lack of simple human emotions, hugs, tears and talks?

As educators, can we ourselves be the actual source of our learners’ struggles and sufferings only that later we are in power to feel pity and compassion for them? Do we hurt others intentionally or inadvertently? Do we attribute the cause of our students’ struggles to ourselves? Is it possible that our compassion may be a hypocritical disguise to our own failures or inadequacies as teachers, so that instead of searching for clues within our teaching practices we tend to feel pity for our learners who are struggling with our tests, instructions, curriculum and other imposed guidance? Jonas (2010) admits that compassion translates in teachers’ desire to encourage students’ success by trying to eliminate any possible struggle, but at the same time they fail to acknowledge the double nature of compassion and the fact that it may actually be beneficial for learners to meet some challenges. Implying that compassion is synonymic to pity, Jonas (2010) provides two different types of pity differentiated by Rousseau and Nietzsche, who claimed that one form of  pity may lead to progress by making human race stronger, while the other form of pity can actually harm human race. Jonas (2010) notes that:

The problem of education for Rousseau and Nietzsche is, therefore, not that it constructs selves, but that it constructs selves badly by failing to encourage self-mastery in students. Education of this sort produces weak-willed conformists who are directed by the whims of their desires and the whims of their cultures’ desires. (p.49)

 On the other hand, by eliminating any possible difficulty and struggle in our learning environment in order to protect our students and create a comfortable classroom atmosphere, can we guarantee that they will become immune to any suffering they will definitely encounter in the world outside our classroom? Can education, and life in general, be pain-free? Jonas (2010) claims that for educators, pity is not a spontaneous feeling but rather an informed decision as to when and how much pity/compassion they should demonstrate in order to provoke self-mastery in their students. The obvious limitation is the teachers’ inabilities to know their students completely in order to intuitively make the judgement; consequently, students should actually lead teachers in their decisions as to whether or not they need compassion (Jonas, 2010). By alleviating the suffering, promoting cooperation, mutual respect and support, Poppo (2006) believes we may promote “a pedagogy of compassion”, but Prystowsky (2004) admits that there is no guarantee that “ good learning environment will necessarily produce good, caring citizens” (p. 4).

The most common comments from my ESL students on my end of term evaluations are those indicating that I’m a kind teacher. I often wonder what they mean by this rather general adjective. Do they really mean “compassionate”, but their insufficient vocabulary prevents them from accurate wording? Once I asked my multicultural class to write anonymously a few sentences what an ideal teacher should do or be like. Besides obvious comments regarding knowledge base and clear explanation, many of them pointed out that a good teacher should help them solve their problems, and not only academic ones. Reflecting on what that implies for our teaching practice of international students, I doubt that we are ever able to satisfy even partially their expectations. Educators are often limited in their degree of compassion in order not to compromise the professional ethics, student privacy and other written and unwritten rules of student-teacher relationships. Even though I sympathize and understand how difficult life may be in a foreign country, I cannot always help my students with their financial, personal and academic problems. I cannot go with them to their bank appointments because their limited English, accent and shyness make it a challenging experience; similarly, I cannot co-sign their rental agreement as a guarantor (I did have those requests in the past). Being compassionate does not always translate into active involvement of action; by refusing our students’ unreasonable requests, we probably seem lacking compassion and understanding; on the other hand, we provoke their active position and encourage “self-mastery” (Jonas, 2010).

Compassion is a mixed feeling, a blend of love, caring, empathy, and understanding, an intangible co-experience, and if we are unable to have at least one of these components, then we probably just feel sorry for another person’s suffering. Unlike other human feelings, compassion is not a permanent state, rather it appears under some life circumstances, which means that some people can be more compassionate due to their exposure to specific experiences. On the other hand, sometimes the same life events can provoke compassion in some people and revenge or satisfaction in others; consequently, compassion is not a universal inborn part of our personality, rather it is nurtured under specific social circumstances. Compassion is an art, and according to Fromm (2000), mastery of every art requires the knowledge of theory and sufficient practice. Compassion is not a skill, fact or information we can share, it’s a feeling, which should be experienced by each individual separately in order to understand it. Consequently, it is not enough to teach children the moral values and preach the necessity to be kind and compassionate; in order to nurture a feeling, children should have the opportunity to “practice”, that is to be in a situation when they need to feel this co-suffering with other human beings.



Fromm, E. (2000). The art of loving. New York: Continuum.

Fromm, E. (2009). The art of listening. New York: Continuum.

Jonas, M. E. (2010). When teachers must let education hurt: Rousseau and Nietzsche on compassion and the educational value of suffering. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 44 (1), 45-60.

Poppo, K. (2006). A pedagogy of compassion: Janusz Korczak and the care of the child.

ENCOUNTER: Education for Meaning and Social Justice, 19 (4), 32-39.

Prystowsky, R. J. (2004). Creating a space for care and compassion. Path of Learning, 20, 3-4.

White, R. (2008). Rousseau and the education of compassion. Journal of Philosophy of

Education, 42 (1), 35-48.