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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 8

The Power of Gentleness

Compassionate leaders can create humane school environments in which students and teachers reach their full potential.

Think of all the leadership training you've been through—courses, workshops, institutes, presentations, reading groups, and conferences. I would hate to add up all the time I've spent in such programs. I've also had many supervisors in my years as a teacher and administrator, all of whom have offered lots of advice.
I know about situational leadership, clinical supervision, Gantt charts, and all the laws one should follow to dismiss a teacher. I've been advised to recognize when to “put your knee in someone's back,” and not to let “them” have too much information. I know about finding the bottom line, flattening organizations, being mean and lean, and generally revering the model provided by the business sector. What I have rarely, if ever, heard in these contexts are the words kindness and compassion.
Yet, education is not a business. Excellence in education doesn't necessarily mean being tough. It may very well mean just the opposite—holding high standards, but at the same time providing compassionate support to help students and staff reach those standards.
Being an educator or education leader is not about climbing career ladders—it's about service. And service entails listening to others, caring for them, and quietly going about doing your job.
Rather than looking at production models, power models, and business models, we should look in some other directions for inspiration. Two directions I suggest for all educators are the wisdom of the ancient East and brain-based research. The former suggests the incredible power that can result from kindness and compassion. The latter reveals in a painfully empirical manner the physical and psychological harm that can result from a lack of these qualities.

No Winners and Losers

We tend to see confrontations in terms of right and wrong, winners and losers. We can become so convinced of these battle lines that we create inevitable conflict and punishment. But there is another option.
When I was a middle school principal, a student was sent to my office for discipline. This middle school had a loose hallway door; if one pushed it hard, it would swing into the wall, making a hole with the knob. The student had been engaged in this activity when he was sent to my office. He entered angry, practically in tears, and ready for the system to beat him down. I have reconstructed our dialogue.
DH: Come in. Sit down. Why are you here? S: Now you're going to give me a detention or send me home. : Did I say anything about sending you home or detentions? S: That's what you are going to do. DH: Why are you here? S: Because the teacher said that I was making holes in the wall with the door. DH: Were you? S: Now you're just going to punish me, and I didn't do nothing. DH: Did you make a hole in the wall with the door? S: There was already a hole, and the door swings too fast. I told you I would be in trouble. DH: Did I say you were in trouble? S: Well, you're going to give me a detention. DH: That door is loose. Do you think that in the future you could push it more gently? S: I didn't do nothing. DH: Did I say you had done anything? I simply asked you if the next time you could push the door more gently. S: Oh, so you want me to act like a girl or some kind of weakling. DH: No, I asked if you thought you could push the door more gently. S: Why should I, when you're just going to punish me? DH: Did I say I was going to punish you? I simply asked if you could push the door more gently next time. It's broken, and the hinges are too loose, so a slight push can send it into the wall. S: But I didn't do nothing. DH: Did I say you did anything? I asked you if you could push the door more gently next time, so that it doesn't hit the wall. S: I guess so. DH: So you can do that? S: Yeah. DH: OK, then next time, please push the door more gently. Now go back to class.
Punishing this student would have been easy, and I would have won the battle because my forces were clearly superior. I also would have confirmed his negative beliefs and destroyed our emerging relationship. Instead, I got what I wanted—for him to understand that he should push the door more gently—and I did not have to “crush the enemy” in the process. No one ever sent him to my office for this offense again.
At the time, I had only heard of Sun Tzu's book, The Art of War, written in China more than 2,000 years ago. Sun Tzu's words, for the most part, are directed at what generals need to know to lead successful campaigns, but they certainly apply to the interaction between the middle school student and myself:
Therefore, 100 victories in 100 battles is not the most skillful. Subduing the other's military without battle is most skillful.(2001, p. 9)
Education should be about helping students become humane, caring individuals, capable of dealing with the complex issues that the world presents. We can model humane behavior for our students without sacrificing standards of learning or behavior.

Putting People First

Supervisors have advised me that my priorities should be students first, program second, and teachers third. I agree that students should come first, but I think that we need to reconsider the order of the second and third priorities.
One teacher whom I supervised was a bitter complainer, often coming to my office with a host of issues. At first, I would try to engage her in conversation and attempt to solve her problems. This never worked; she had an objection for every suggestion I made, and there was no end to the conversation.
Then it struck me: All she wanted was for someone to listen, to lend a compassionate ear. From then on, our conversations proceeded much more positively. I would not say anything, but I would listen to her intently. When she had finished, we would exchange a few pleasantries and she would leave. She did not want advice; she wanted someone to care.
Sometimes people just need some time to collect themselves from days of challenging work. Several years ago, I had a teacher come to me to talk privately in my office. He explained that he and his wife were under stress and that it was affecting his marriage. The couple needed some time to be together, away from their jobs, for just a day or two. The teacher began to cry.
At that moment, my first order of concern was not the program, but the pain of the human being sitting across from me. Yes, finding a suitable substitute would be difficult, especially on short notice. Yes, this would mean a temporary dip in the quality of the program. But I decided to simply have the teacher call in sick for a couple of days and to cover the gap somehow.
This decision does not qualify as tough leadership; it qualifies as humane and therefore intelligent leadership. If I had refused to help this person in need, the quality of his instruction would probably have deteriorated in the long run as the teacher's life situation became more stressful. By helping him make the needed life adjustments, I knew that I would save a fine teacher and gain his loyalty in the bargain.
Frequently, by treating teachers with compassion, I have found them much more willing to put in extra hours as needed, more willing to help others by covering classes in crisis situations, and more willing to do whatever had to be done. In other words, by putting teachers ahead of program in this type of situation, I strengthened the program and my base of support.
A rigid leader—who accepts no excuses for being late or leaving early, for example—fosters conflict. One can be sure that grievances will erupt every time the leader steps out of contractual line even the slightest bit. When the principal asks teachers to stay five minutes extra to finish some work, the answer will be no. Without compassion and kindness and allowing for people's individual needs, the system becomes mechanical and unyielding. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu says,
Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it. The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid.(1988, p. 78)

Kindness Is Healthy

Stress kills. The brain research of the last 20 years shows this to be true. Patricia Wolfe, in her book Brain Matters, tells us that The stress response, with its release of cortisol and epinephrine, was designed to last a relatively short time, until you outran the bear or became its dinner. In contemporary life, however, we often extend the response by talking about the stressful event, reliving it, or worrying that it will happen again. We have a tendency to keep ourselves in a chronic, prolonged fight-or-flight state, with potentially negative consequences. High concentrations of cortisol over a long period of time can provoke hippocampal deterioration and cognitive decline. With prolonged stress, the immune system is compromised, increasing the risk of illness, acceleration of disease, and retardation of growth. (2001, p. 110)
By driving people with pressure and without kindness and compassion, we keep up the stress. Although this may garner short-term results, the long-term harm is costly.

Myths About Kindness and Compassion

An examination of some of the myths about leadership can shed light on the power of compassionate leadership and increase effectiveness.
Kindness is weakness, and sternness is strength. Kindness is, in fact, a great strength. Through kindness we win people over. Kindness begets allies and avoids having people work out of fear. Eventually, fear breeds unhappiness and disease, whereas kindness develops trust and loyalty.
Emotion clouds thinking. Quite the contrary—brain research tells us that “emotion is very important to the educative process because it drives attention, which drives learning and memory” (Sylwester, 1995, p. 72). In fact, what better way to get the best from people than to let them know that you care about them?
Of course, we can't make difficult decisions solely on the basis of emotion. Sometimes, for the welfare of the group, we have to make unpopular decisions, or ones that leave certain people disappointed. Over time, if a teacher cannot deliver high-quality instruction, the leader will probably have to counsel that person out of the workplace. Even this act, however, can be done with kindness. People will respect you more if they know that you make decisions—even painful decisions—in a compassionate and supportive way.
A leader should demand the best of people. Instead, why not expect the best from people? Expectation implies trust and confidence. Demanding implies that without external prodding, people's natural laziness will take over. Why not go with the positive approach? This attitude has the added benefit of reducing stress.
The stick works better than the carrot. On the contrary, a system of rewards has obvious advantages over a program of punishments. Pride, confidence, recognition, and actual physical rewards create an atmosphere of caring and support. The stick creates stress and mistrust. Rewards are like expectations; they recognize and encourage good work.
Leaders have no time to listen to personal problems. This belief is short-sighted. Maslow's hierarchy of needs suggests that people do not function at high levels until their basic needs are met. We know that students under emotional stress cannot function effectively; the same is true of adults. A few minutes of empathic listening can save a great deal of anguish and unproductive time.
Personal relationships are dangerous and unprofessional. Keep relationships impersonal. All good teaching starts with positive relationships between teachers and students. Why should this be any different for adults working with adults? Personal relationships reveal our human fallibility to one another, allowing us to be vulnerable and to admit our mistakes.
Personal relationships inspire loyalty and mutual support. Impersonality treats people as if they were machine parts, which results in a lack of spirit and a feeling that one is just going through the motions.

Compassion Leads to Strength

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about the intelligence of compassionate action: Understanding and compassion are very powerful sources of energy. They are the opposite of stupidity and passivity. If you think that compassion is passive, weak, or cowardly, then you don't know what real compassion or understanding is. If you think that compassionate people do not resist and challenge injustice, you are wrong. They are warriors, heroes, and heroines who have gained many victories. . . . Mahatma Gandhi was just one person. He did not have any bombs, guns, or any political party. He acted simply on the . . . strength of compassion, not on the basis of anger. (2001, p. 128)
Kindness and compassion are powerful forces for change, team building, loyalty, cooperation, and strength. They are key characteristics of successful leadership, empowering leaders to create humane systems in which professionals and students can take risks in order to grow and learn without fear, anxiety, or undue stress.
Unfortunately, kindness and compassion are two missing elements of administrators' training. We must seek these forces within ourselves to increase our strength and productivity. Only in this way will we reach our potential as human beings and leaders—and help others reach their potential.

Hanh, T. N. (2001). Anger: Wisdom for cooling the flames. New York: Penguin Putnam.

Lao Tzu. (1988). Tao te ching (S. Mitchell, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.

Sun Tzu. (2001). The art of war, a new translation (The Denman Group Translation Group, Trans.). Boston: Shambala.

Sylwester, R. (1995). A celebration of neurons: An educator's guide to the human brain. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wolfe, P. (2001). Brain matters: Translating research into classroom practice. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Daniel A. Heller is the district curriculum coordinator for the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union in Wilmington, Vermont. He has taught secondary English, been a high school English department head, taught graduate-level education courses, served as a director of professional development, and been a principal during his 28-year career in education, both public and private. Heller holds a B.A. in English from Middlebury (Vermont) College, an M.A. in English literature from the Bread Loaf School of English (Vermont), a M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction from Keene (New Hampshire) State College, and a certificate of advanced graduate study from the University of Vermont. Besides the study of literature and writing, his major area of interest is professional development. He has previously published articles and book chapters for Phi Delta Kappa, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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