Relationship Building

Exploring Compassion-Based Teaching (Ep. 284)

In today’s episode, AOEU graduate and elementary art teacher LeighAnn Greene joins Tim to talk about her research and implementation of compassion-based teaching in her classroom. Listen as LeighAnn shares her journey to compassion-based teaching, how her mindset has shifted, and why relationships are so vitally important in our teaching.  Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

Today’s guest, LeighAnn Greene, is a great teacher from Michigan and an Art of Education University graduate. I’ll let her introduce herself in just a minute, but I am curious, and I’m looking forward to talking about a lot of what she’s doing with her teaching and in her classroom. And she’s very focused on compassion-based teaching, which I think is something that a lot of teachers can and should know more about because compassion is something that we need right now. It’s something that we can all look at doing more of, being more conscious of in our classroom, in our teaching, in our interactions with students. Because right now I think there’s a deficit of empathy just in all walks of life. And if we can model being empathetic, if we can show our kids compassion, it’s going to go a long way to building the kind of classroom community that we want.

Because like I said, the more opportunities we have to model that empathy and show that compassion, the better off we will all be. And obviously when we do those things, when we show compassion, when we show empathy, it’s going to affect our classroom. And the first thought is how it affects how we deal with behavior, but it goes deeper than that as well. And I’m curious to see what Leanne has to say about other ways that compassion-based teaching can help our planning and curriculum and organization, just other parts of what is happening in the art room. So we’ll talk to her about all of that in just a minute.

But I think just a good reminder as we’re thinking about empathy, as we’re thinking about compassion, the amazing podcast called The Art of SEL that came out earlier this summer, Jonathan Juravich hosted that, it is an eight-episode series that explores all different aspects of social emotional learning and how those different competencies relate to what is happening in the art room. And if you’re interested in diving into that a little bit more, you can find it on the AOEU website, or you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And if you’ve listened to those eight episodes once already, it might be worth your time to revisit a few or maybe even revisit all of them. So go check out The Art of SEL. It’s a wonderful podcast, definitely worth your time. Okay. It is time for me to talk to LeighAnn. So let me welcome her on now.

And LeighAnn Greene is joining me now. LeighAnn, how are you?

LeighAnn: I’m all right. How are you?

Tim: I’m doing well. I’m looking forward to this conversation. I think we have a lot of really good things to talk about. You’ve done some really interesting research that I’m excited for you to share. But before we do all that, can you introduce yourself and tell us about your teaching, your work as an artist? Anything else that you want to share?

LeighAnn: Yeah. I live in Detroit, Michigan with my husband and our dog Rilla. We are both artists and actually met at art school. I’ve settled into drawing as a favorite medium, but I definitely work with a lot of different materials. We’re expecting our first child, baby girl, very soon.

Tim: Congratulations on that.

LeighAnn: Thank you. Yeah, next few weeks.

Tim: Cool.

LeighAnn: I teach at an elementary school outside of Detroit though. So I’m the art teacher for young fives through fifth grade in one building. And then in the summers, I work with high school and college-age artists in a youth employment program, actually. So this is a program I’ve worked with since 2007. It started out just with classes on the weekend and in the summer, but then it’s evolved into a partnership with youth employment where I work with them, I’m their supervising artist and we do different projects together. Last couple of years, we’ve made sculptures for a festival locally.

Tim: Oh, cool. Well that first of all, it sounds like a lot. It sounds like a very cool program there, but it just sounds like you’re doing a lot, and somehow on top of all that you got your master’s degree. So I wanted to ask about that. I know you did your research and you wrote your thesis about compassionate teaching. I want to talk about compassionate teaching today, but before we get there, can you tell me just about your experience as a grad student at The Art of Education University?

LeighAnn: Yeah. I started the program really, in 2019, and just doing one class at a time as I was working full time while I was doing it. But the program, I felt like it was pretty ideal in that I didn’t really want to take time off of work or felt like I really could. So, I appreciated the timeline of it and I could take it as slow as they want now, of course, when COVID hit, I actually started taking quite a few more classes.

Tim: Yeah, yeah.

LeighAnn: But also the content was super relevant to what I’m already doing. Looking into others programs locally, other ones that were online, none of it was art education specific. So this of course is tailored for art educators that are practicing.

Tim: Right, right.

LeighAnn: So almost all of my electives that I took were studio courses, which was really appealing to me as someone who had a studio background in the first place. And then of course I had an option to do an art-based research focus for the Capstone Project.

Tim: Yeah. Just quick question, I don’t mean to interrupt, but did you have a favorite studio course? Did you have a studio course that you really enjoyed more than others?

LeighAnn: Oh, I really liked the ceramics course in that it gave me an opportunity to again, purchase clay and get back into it.

Tim: Yeah.

LeighAnn: I have a kiln in my classroom, but haven’t made my own work in quite a long time. And then with drawing too, even though that’s something that I really enjoy and probably do more easily on my own, there were things that I relearned or looked at again or learned anew that really clicked for me. And I feel like it really advanced my own style or my understanding of things that I thought I had a pretty good grasp of to begin with, but I surprised myself. So those two definitely were my favorite.

Tim: Okay. That’s really cool. So let me ask you though, before you said you had the option to do an arts-based research focus when you’re doing your Capstone Project during your thesis, can you talk about that a little bit and what that experience was like for you?

LeighAnn: Oh, yeah. So I wrote the big, long paper for the thesis and did the research for it, but was able to put it into not a big body of work, but I had several small pieces and then ended up creating a larger drawing that really was a representation of the things that I found in my research. And I knew from the beginning, and I remember asking getting into the program, is this something I can do for the Capstone? Can I create a body of work? And yes, and that was the ticket for me. I’ve always learned things best by making artwork about it. I need to make the work to really figure out how it fits into my world fits, into my brain.

And then compassion-based teaching was something that I wanted to know more about and figure out really why it felt important for my classroom practice, my teaching practice. And then how can I integrate it further? So in creating that bigger drawing, everything, all the puzzle pieces came together for me as far as what I learned about compassion-based teaching and what I want to do with it moving forward.

Tim: Yeah. That’s really cool. So let’s talk more about compassionate teaching and compassion-based teaching. So first of all, can you explain it for the listeners? What is compassion-based teaching? And then maybe talk a little bit, why did it interest you and why did you want to make that part of your research?

LeighAnn: Yeah. Compassion-based teaching, I think of it as a mindset towards all aspects of teaching, curriculum design, lesson planning, classroom management instruction, and more than just behavior.

Tim: Right.

LeighAnn: And it’s really meeting student needs whether they’re academic or expressed in a way that acknowledges that they’re important, the students get it, that I see you and I get you, and then I’m responding in a respectful and efficient way that supports them specifically. So it’s really teaching and seeing and working within a classroom that’s using reactive and proactive empathy to either fix a problem, or just to again, bring something new to the table.

Tim: I was going to say. And then, so when you’re doing that research, did that affect how you were thinking about your own teaching?

LeighAnn: Oh, for sure. I wanted to look at different ways, and again, more than just behavior, like how can I implement compassionate practices within curriculum? That is not something I’ve spent a ton of time thinking about, but curriculum and lesson planning, how can I do that even in how I structure my classroom? So of course we think about compassionate teaching in terms of managing behavior, that’s pretty straightforward, but definitely in the research coming out of it, I had more tools or a more holistic way of looking at what goes on in my classroom in those terms.

Tim: Yeah, no, that makes a lot of sense. And I do want to dive into the behavior aspect of things if we can, because I think that compassion-based teaching and just the idea of empathy, that makes a lot of sense for teachers when we’re thinking about building, the relationships that we have with our students. And so I guess when you’re thinking about empathy, specifically, how have you seen it affect behavior as you’re implementing these practices? Not only the proactive thing where you’re trying to prevent some behaviors, but also reactive, like when you’re dealing with behaviors when they are of course going to happen?

LeighAnn: Yeah. I think it’s been a big game-changer as far as behavior management, for sure. In that my student behaviors are generally more positive just as a whole, but then I feel less anxiety when I’m dealing with negative behaviors. Students are usually pretty receptive to redirection when they feel seen or that their needs are met by someone who’s caring or a calm force. So definitely if there’s a behavior that’s acute, I’m trying to take a breath and calmly respond to it and really like also think about why that’s happening in the first place, what the motivations are. But I definitely want to think about it proactively as well, so that we don’t necessarily get to that point.

Tim: Right. Okay, so also you talked about how compassion-based teaching has just been a holistic idea where you want to rethink the whole approach. So I guess I’m interested to hear more about that. How can it affect your classroom setup for example, can you share a couple of examples of how you approach the setup of your classroom and organizing materials, things like that with compassion in mind?

LeighAnn: Yeah. When I think about classroom setup and the lens of compassion, I want to create an environment where students feel comfortable and supported enough to have some autonomy in the art studio. So when something isn’t functioning smoothly in the classroom, or there’s a problem behavior, I try to consider if there’s something in the physical space that is contributing to it, what needs aren’t being met in my space? And usually it’s a lot easier to manage this this way then repeatedly redirecting students. And it’s got to feel better for them anyway.

Tim: Right.

LeighAnn: If they can function in a positive way to begin with, I do put a lot of effort into setting up this space and teaching routines that keep those behaviors positive and in check, did they have access to this organization in the way that they need to, can they read the labels? Can they see pictures of what’s being labeled? Did they actually see me demonstrate where to something or what its function is more than once before I get frustrated that they didn’t do it?

Tim: Right.

LeighAnn: And then did they have ample practice dealing with it themselves. And then I want to organize things in a way that’s going to minimize confusion, are the materials in a space that’s predictable? Is it easily accessible? Or is it in a crowded corner where somebody is going to make a bad choice?

Tim: Yeah.

LeighAnn: And are they also in a way that they can access them independently and in a positive way? So one way that I do this is I do label everything that the students are using or will have open access to with both words and images, which is not something that is unique, a lot of teachers do that, but it’s an absolutely compassionate act to do it that way. And here we’re helping students move around the art room in a functional way that also reinforces the identification of the hundreds of things that they might use with us. And I also feel that organizing and training students on certain procedures establishes a level of stability for them, predictability. So it allows students the head space to really just focus on their art making, live positively within this space where they can be vulnerable. And it gives them a sense that their actions contribute to the greater good of the culture, my class, and where their jobs are outlined in to where they can not really do it independently, I guess, and practice that contribution to the class.

Tim: Yeah, I think that’s really cool. I think that collective idea is huge, but even bigger than that, I think just the idea of stability and clear expectations and just knowing what’s going to happen when they come into the room is so beneficial. Not only for behaviors, but for just letting them work, letting them contribute. I think that’s huge. So you mentioned earlier also compassion based teaching playing a role in your instruction. So can I ask you about that? Like what does that look like from your perspective? How does it play into instruction? And what kinds of ideas, what kinds of things do you take into consideration with pacing and sequencing and all of your planning when it comes to instruction?

LeighAnn: Yeah. When I’m planning the sequence of something or the pacing within my instruction, I am trying to remain in touch with the very real idea that most of what our students do with us is super foreign to them.

Tim: Oh, yeah, yeah.

LeighAnn: At least in the beginning. So it may be something that they’re really uncomfortable trying or trying again, but that also, it might be something that they really hate doing.

Tim: True.

LeighAnn: Either way they’re vulnerable. So when I am introducing something that’s new, I’m really cautious about the steps. I want to give them the opportunity to play with it without high stakes at first, well even throughout a unit, did they get the opportunity to play with it? And then certainly find a way that hooks them, creates an investment which is respectful of their voice. And I want to advocate for that so that I am telling them that there’s an equal partnership here, once they’ve done those two things are, or I’ve definitely established that, then I’ll start to introduce something a little bit more substantial that goes into the techniques that I actually need them to learn and to practice.

And in that respect too, is the actual projects that we’re doing, I need to make sure that I’m differentiating in a way that shows that I’m aware of what their needs are. And I definitely share my reflections on this process too, with them, like I thought a lot about why you’re struggling with this one material, or I see that you’re really invested in this idea here, so we are going to do A, B, and C. And in sharing that too. I’m hoping that they’re thinking about their own self-reflective process. Which is super important for their own academic growth or social emotional health.

Tim: Right. Right. So let me ask you this though, you talked about differentiation, you talked about kids being vulnerable and maybe not liking or not being sure of what they’re doing, what they’re getting into. So I’m curious, do you talk about here’s what happens if you make a mistake? Do you talk about like, here’s how you handle those things?

LeighAnn: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of the biggest, proactive ways that I can show compassion to the kids. And they maybe don’t even realize it. I try to anticipate where mistakes are going to be made, or even remember what happened last year when then some kid had a meltdown based on this one thing, and then model how to deal with it. So in doing so, I’m showing them how to appropriately respond to when they’re challenged and that there’s really always a creative to get out of something. So I will often put up a drawing, whatever we’re working on, and I’ll put something or maybe a few things that are off somewhat in technique, or it’s not quite there with craftsmanship or something. And I’ll ask students to identify for me what’s wonky about it, and how, how am I going to get through this?

And they like to correct me for sure, teach the teacher. Or I’ll intentionally ruin something. If I’m working on a collage will cut off the head of the person and then I’ll panic about it or pretend to at least, and soon it’s usually come up with ways to calm me down.

Tim: Okay.

LeighAnn: And calm my panic down and then how to fix it, whatever it is that I’m working, give me ideas for that, which is great. They’re practicing how to do it without having to feel it themselves, they’re trying to fix it for me.

Tim: Yeah. That’s really cool. Well, and that goes back to the whole idea of empathy too. They’re able to re relate to what you’re doing, they are able to talk through that and just feel what you’re feeling. I think that’s an awesome thing. Just one real quick question along these same lines, as far as instruction can you give us just a really quick example of a lesson there that you do and just talk through one or two things that you’re thinking about when you design a lesson?

LeighAnn: With like the sequencing of it, or?

Tim: Yeah, yeah.

LeighAnn: Yeah. My one specific unit that my fifth grade, that’s the biggest culminating thing of the year. And I usually try to put a little bit of the concepts in to every project that we do, but color theory for them is really important. It’s a district standard, and then it’s just super important for everything.

Tim: Yeah.

LeighAnn: But so for a long time, I would do these traditional color wheel projects that I thought were fantastic and pretty. But they weren’t super interested in, or they weren’t really invested in making sure things were accurate or understanding the difference between red, red-orange, and red-violet.

Tim: Right.

LeighAnn: But so with them, I’ve settled into at first maybe I’ll have them experiment with paint and how can they, just make some colors? I’ve seen that a hundred color project.

Tim: Yeah, yeah.

LeighAnn: And they don’t usually get up to a hundred colors, but they have certainly fun making some interesting ones and then we cut those up and put them in order and try to actually put a name to them. And then from there, I’ll explain to them that, hey, here’s the goal we are trying to get to that 12 hue color wheel. And then instead of doing it in paint, let’s do it in cookies and frosting. That’s something I’ve seen a lot of art teachers do, but it really is a motivating thing. How could it not be, its sugar?

Tim: Yeah, I would love that.

LeighAnn: Yeah. So, it takes a lot of prep, but you can just get the primary color frosting and have them make a color wheel with that. And it’s a relief to them to know once they’ve done it, well, you’ve already did it. You already know how to do it. Now we just have to do it in paint. We have to do it in actual materials that are going to live for more than a day before you eat it.

Tim: Right.

LeighAnn: So that gets them hooked up in there and then releases some of the pressure, again, low stakes, not high stakes things to begin with. And then I’ll, because it’s super important have them actually do it in paint, but not something gigantic that’s going to take three months to complete.

Tim: Right.

LeighAnn: We’ll do a small one and okay, you’ve translated what you can do in frosting into temper paint before doing something a little bit more substantial.

And actually last year is when I started to do a felted color wheel with using the primary color wheel roving. Which was perfect for teaching during COVID because it was so soap, and the wool roving, it was super clean. Anyways, but that went back to my reflection on like, why don’t they care about this? Because they were using paint to begin with, and they’ve done paint, they don’t have that, sometimes it goes back to that physical connection with it, or that movement that they need to really understand something.

Tim: Right.

LeighAnn: So doing a felted color wheel, they are physically, messing with the color ratios to create something. And of course getting some aggression out on getting the fibers to work with it. But so that’s how I started off again, low stakes, play around with it, feel it out and then get invested before doing something that is a little bit more substantial.

Tim: Yeah, I’m in, I’ve just got to say if we get cookies and paint and we get to do felting, I’m in, I’m ready to go. That sounds like a blast.

LeighAnn: Right on.

Tim: Cool. Just one last question for, if people are interested in the idea of compassion based teaching, if they want to learn more beyond just this podcast, where can they find some information or where would you recommend they learn a little bit more about it?

LeighAnn: Yeah. I have a couple resources that I’ve felt were really helpful during my Capstone process. Nell Noddings on her works on care ethics. It was definitely heavier scholarly reads here, but it really helped me understand a shifting relationship between, she talks about the carer and the cared for. But it’s useful in thinking about ways of integrating compassion in more than just behavior management. So all those different parts of the classroom that I’m talking about.

Tim: Yeah, yeah.

LeighAnn: And then when I was working on my Capstone Project, I actually heard a Freakonomics podcast that I thought was super relevant. It was called How Do You Cure A Compassion Crisis? They were talking specifically about doctor patient relationships, but there was definitely a parallel to student teacher relationships.

Tim: Okay.

LeighAnn: And then took it also even further into how does using compassion relate or prevent burnout? Which I think is something a lot of teachers are feeling right now, for sure.

Tim: Yes. For sure. That’s really cool. All right. Those are awesome recommendations, Leanne, this has been so much incredible information today, so thank you so much for taking the time to share some ideas and share some practices from your classroom. I think this will be helpful for a lot of people, so thank you.

LeighAnn: Right on, thank you.

Tim: Thank you to LeighAnn for that wonderful conversation. I appreciated hearing her perspective on what it’s like to be a master’s student at AOEU and hearing about what she appreciated, what she enjoyed during her experience with that program. And then in talking about compassion-based teaching, I found quite a few things that she said to be pretty interesting. So I took a few notes, just a few things that I wrote down. Just the idea that students are receptive to redirection, they’re receptive to how we’re trying to correct behaviors when they feel seen and when their needs are being met by somebody who is caring and who is calm. And just the idea of being caring, but being proactive with that caring as well. Leanne talked about modeling compassion and promoting compassion amongst peers, and also having compassion with yourself. And I think all of those ideas go back to that thought about the empathy deficit that I talked about in the intro, and just being able to be empathetic toward others, being able to be compassionate to ourselves can help us regulate emotions and help kids regulate theirs as well.

I also liked when LeighAnn talked about introducing a new concept and just being very conscious of the sequence of activities and just letting kids explore without anything being real high stakes or them needing to get good results. Just being able to find a way to hook the kids and create some investment after that’s done and then advocate for student voice and show kids that this is an equal partnership, that she wants to hear what they have to say. And then after that footing is established, then she’ll move on to something more substantial and demonstrate maybe the exact techniques that students need to learn. So a lot there to think about, a lot there that I think is really, really good advice. So like I said, I know that’s a lot, but there are a lot of opportunities for everyone listening to think about this conversation, reflect on what is happening in their classrooms, and perhaps find some space where compassion-based teaching can fit in to what you’re doing. Compassion-based teaching is something that might be able to help you, something that can definitely help your students.

Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education University with audio engineering by Michael Crocker. Thanks for listening, and we will talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.