Leaving Compassion, Humanity and Empathy Behind: Thoughts on the Rutgers Tragedy!

I have been consumed with the senseless tragedy that unfolded at Rutgers University earlier this week. My thoughts keep turning to  the boy and the girl in the room next door, computers and smartphones at the ready. I feel a pit in my stomach when I try to imagine what they were thinking. I can’t get past my invented image of them laughing, belittling and joking about their peer. It haunts and disturbs me. We failed all three of the kids involved and if we don’t wake up to the implications of “instatech” on teaching, learning and morality, we stand to fail an entire generation.

My first thought is that we must all better understand how online interactions differ from face to face communication.We can be anonymous online – nicknames, monikers and the like make it all too easy to hide behind the screen. This makes some people say and do things that they would never have the guts to do in person. In a sense, the intended audience is dehumanized. We can’t see their reaction so we have no idea how what we are communicating is being received. This inhibits our moral filter and precludes our ability to adjust our communications. I learned early in my career that 90% of all communication is non-verbal. The rest is motions, gestures, tone, eye movement etc. When we communicate online via e-mail, chats, Facebook or Twitter, this 90% is missing, making it difficult to capture nuances. We are stuck with only text, punctuation and few other cues to help us interpret. Video clips are often taken out of or presented without context. Pair all of this with the still developing morality of tweens, teens and young adults and we have a recipe for disaster.  Additionally, online communications happen at warp speed. We no longer have time to adequately process what we receive online (or in person for some of the perpetually busy folks out there). We feel compelled to respond quickly. We fire off e-mail replies and comment on news stories, facebook posts and the like without  reflecting, spell-checking, proofreading or editing. We don’t even ask ourselves if our ideas are worthy. We somehow have come to automatically believe that all of our ideas are worthy. Opinions are not automatically truth. More and more, I see examples of writing and communication that are not well-planned, well-argued, well-researched or well-articulated. We are forsaking quality for quantity and this scares the heck out of me for some reason. We don’t think before we “speak”. This is not a new problem but what is new is the fact that now our thoughts go out to the world instantaneously. While this is wonderful for the spread of innovation and ideas, it is not so wonderful if we haven’t taught our students to filter and/or if the ideas are hurtful or damaging.

At the same time,  we are becoming more and more afraid to stand up to inappropriate behavior.  In our classrooms, we are afraid to admonish students when they display negative behavior. For one,  we don’t have time. We are too busy making sure kids are ready for tests so we let things slide that we know deep inside are not okay. Secondly, we have learned to be afraid of the possibility that  administrators and parents will not support us. In fact, we know from experience that some parents will complain if they feel we are singling out their child or being too hard on their child. End result? Negative behavior online or otherwise proliferates, goes unchecked and moral compasses go haywire.

So what is a good educator to do?  Blame the parents?  It’s tempting but it won’t help. It’s kind of a cop out. “Well the parents won’t do anything so I won’t either.” WRONG!  It needs to go something like this:

Step 1 – Find compassion for yourself and for the child.

Step 2 – Realize you can and should make a difference by lovingly helping a child to fully consider the implications of their actions.

Step 3  – Don’t be afraid to stand up and say “no, it’s not okay to write that, say that, do that to another person.” Find the right time and place to have a conversation with a child without stripping them of their dignity by asking a series of questions. (What just happened?   Do you think that was okay? Why or why not? What made you do that?  Here’s what I saw.. How might others have  perceived that? What else might have caused that behavior? What are you really upset about? If you could do that again, how would you do it? Do you need to reconcile with anyone? How will you do that? ) I’m not advocating that we all become counselors but I am saying that part of being a great teacher is taking the roles of great mentor, mirror and role model for kids seriously.

Step 4 – Find time and space in your lessons to integrate and address these types of issues on a more universal level. Don’t think that other teachers are “covering” this. It can’t be covered. It gets uncovered and it has to be hit again and again and again.

Step 5 – Press for digital literacy & citizenship workshops and curriculum for administrators, teachers, students and parents in your school. It’s essential that we help each other learn how to navigate this new territory.

Step 6 – If the love and reason approach does not seem to be having an impact and a child is a repeat offender, we need to call in extra help – another teacher, a coach, a friend of the student, counselors, psychologists, and/or parents and perhaps devise a custom plans for the child.

Yes, it’s a big problem and yes, it will take time and yes, it will be a giant pain in the rear and yes, it’s hard. But letting kids off the hook time and time again only hurts them and others in the long run.   We can’t afford to stand down anymore. Every time we do, we all lose. While we have been busy making sure no child gets left behind academically, we have somehow managed to leave behind humanity, empathy and compassion instead. No one can learn or shine while they are witnessing or being teased, taunted, or bullied online or in-person no matter how subtle it seems. For those of you wondering how the heck you are supposed to teach one more thing, I would argue it’s way more important to teach a child how to have respect and compassion for another’s dignity than it is to teach them how to solve for x any day, any time, any place.  I welcome your comments and hope this meager little post can help us fail one less child in what really matters.

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