Post-COVID, we can no longer accept a lack of compassion

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything for everyone – how we move around, our feelings of vulnerability, our awareness of what well-being means for us, the value of care for ourselves and each other and our priorities. This has happened for all of us, no matter our location and social or cultural context. Now in 2023, the fifth year of the pandemic, who we want to be and how we want to be is now more than ever important.

Innovation and new and different ways of working and being with each other have clearly been highlighted. The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the areas in higher education that urgently demand our attention. The need to humanise our experiences, observations and interactions with each other has risen to the surface. As too has the need to pause and act with compassion for oneself and others, including our colleagues and students.

In the classroom this has very much been something that has been a non-negotiable – it has been the centre of accelerated change and pressure at every level. Across the sector, despite the clear demand for greater compassion in leadership, higher education has frequently fallen short of expectations.

Compassion is not something we often hear mentioned in higher education. However, the pandemic has unveiled a profound truth: now, more than ever, compassion should permeate our interactions with ourselves and others.

We are at the tipping point of transformative change, compelling us to reassess our values and aspirations. While academic excellence and intellectual growth are undoubtedly important, nurturing compassion is equally crucial for the well-being and success of students and academics alike.

What is compassion?

Compassion is having the courage to turn towards difficulty, pain and suffering within ourselves and for others. Compassion involves having a deep empathic understanding of someone’s emotions, often driven by altruism – a genuine desire to act and support that person with genuine intentions. With this comes a common humanity.

It is a virtue. As a virtue we think of compassion as an ability to recognise and respond with a sensitivity and caring nature to the suffering of others. Compassion is also a strength. As a strength, compassion helps us connect with others, placing relationship at the heart of fostering an understanding about and for others through an emotional intelligence rooted deeply in care, kindness and awareness.

Compassion and self-compassion are often interchanged. They both involve kindness, one to others and the other to self. They both involve mindful awareness. Self-compassion and compassion have a different relationship to one’s well-being; self-compassion can be thought of as how you treat yourself like a friend in times of need, while compassion is expressed to others.

What have we noticed?

In an edited collection focusing on compassion, change and COVID as part of the series of Wellbeing and Self-care in Higher Education: Embracing positive solutions, compassion is seen as an act of self-care.

In this way self-care is positioned as relational, requiring action, motivation, support and-or inspiration as part of proactive actions towards growing, protecting and maintaining one’s well-being, wellness and health. The pandemic has been a major catalyst of disruption in this area.

What have we learnt?

Acts of kindness that feel small to us have big impact on others: Compassionately responding to each other with integrity is yearned for, whereby a warmth and care for considerations of misfortune, grief, sorrow or pain are acknowledged.

The need to embrace a well-being literacy: The pandemic has taught us that we need to talk about well-being and self-care for ourselves and for each other. We need to grow our capacity to speak, write, act, embody and embrace what well-being is, can be and will be inside and outside of the academy.

Assumptions only hurt: Making assumptions causes further pain. Deeply listening, inquiring and being curious with each other about the curriculum, learning approaches, classroom protocols, expectations, procedures, policy and how we are with each other requires constant engagement and co-design.

Be the change you want to see: It is necessary to outline, make available and communicate considerations for what, why and how we do things. Moreover, presumptions of accessibility to these areas should be challenged. It is time to be the change we want to see.

The importance of belonging: Belonging is connected to our identity, meaning making, our relevance in the world and our life satisfaction. Our need to belong is significant and to how we bolster our well-being. A sense of belonging is more than being physically on campus. The relationships we form and foster are critical. Each combination of people is different, and we need to place energy into how we connect in each moment in time.

The value of pausing: Practising compassion necessitates a deliberate slowing down and a willingness to embrace ambiguity and imperfection. It involves intentionally creating pauses in our daily routines as we foster an acceptance of vulnerability and compassion as essential dispositions that are often overlooked in higher education.

Placing relationships at the heart of decisions: We need to place relationships and the humanising of how we teach, engage with and support one another, students and colleagues at the heart of leading, collaborating, research, curriculum and pedagogical decisions. That requires educators to adopt a welcoming approach to learning and create a community of practice that fosters hope, optimism and reciprocity among students, educators and the broader community.

What next?

There has been a collective sigh in the academy acknowledging that the pandemic in some institutions divided us. Small pockets of consciously pausing and listening to each other were present. But not all have experienced this. In fact, many feel a rise in disconnection, a lower sense of belonging and less appreciation by leadership.

This is not about the physicality of being on campus; rather it speaks to the valuing of relationships, mutual respect and acknowledgement of the rapid pivots, innovation and constant juggling with little time.

All of this is underpinned by being human. The need to humanise our experiences for each other as colleagues has been required. Ignoring this has hurt. Speaking about this shows we care. Stopping to deeply care embodies a common humanity, kindness and heart.

The pandemic has raised our awareness of the need for compassion, made us hungry to be on the receiving end of compassion and allowed us to reconsider how we are compassionate to ourselves and each other in higher education. The pandemic has also slapped us in the face with what we will no longer accept and that, in particular, means a lack of compassion.

How will we position compassion as a strength in the academy? Are we capable of change?

Dr Narelle Lemon is a professor in education at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia. She is also an adjunct professor at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Narelle is an interdisciplinary scholar across the fields of arts, education and positive psychology. Her research expertise is in fostering well-being literacy. She is series editor for Wellbeing and Self-care in Higher Education: Embracing positive solutions (Routledge) that is attracting much attention and supporting the dialogue of self-care being worthy of our attention. Narelle blogs, tweets, grams and podcasts as a part of her networked scholar practices.