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A Compassion Conference at The International School Yangon

ISY has placed compassion at the center of its mission.
By Mike Simpson
A Compassion Conference at The International School Yangon

Almost two years ago, this mission was adopted by The International School Yangon (ISY). It was developed collaboratively by the ISY community under the guidance of an external consultant, John Littleford. Over a period of months, faculty, staff, students, parents, alumni, board members, and organizations whose families are served by ISY formed focus groups to establish ISY’s future direction.
Our director, Dr. Gregory Hedger, often remarks how proud he is that the ISY community decided to put compassion at the center of everything we do. Proud and also a little surprised. We did not anticipate such a dramatic change to the mission that had served the school well up until that point. But the community made it very clear that ISY is a community that not only serves itself and its students. To quote ISY’s accompanying vision, we aim to develop lifelong learners who will be a force for positive change in the world.
Compassion is one of those terms that might mean different things to different people and is often used interchangeably with sympathy or empathy. We believe that there is a difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Sympathy and empathy refer to a person’s ability to understand or even feel what another person is feeling. Compassion describes what happens when this understanding or feeling drives a person to act to help another person.
At ISY, we are constantly reflecting on how we can develop compassion in our students and in ourselves as a staff and faculty. We have always been a caring community (as evidenced by the change of mission) and we are now more than ever committed to act in the interests of all, including those whose situations and feelings we would struggle to really truly understand. It is clear to us that to begin to develop compassion towards another person, we first must be able to appreciate and understand the perspective of that person.
This need to reflect on what compassion is and how we can develop it in our community was the driving force behind ISY’s first annual Compassion Conference held on 20 September 2019. We consider the development of compassion in all young people to be of the utmost importance and as such we invited teachers from schools around Yangon to join us.
We wanted to create an opportunity for teachers to come together to listen and share ideas on what compassion means and how it can be developed in their students and in themselves. To help us focus our thinking around compassion at the beginning of the conference, we were honored to have Wilma Derksen tell her and her family’s story.
Wilma and Cliff Derksen’s world collapsed when their teenage daughter, Candace, was taken hostage and murdered. Wilma shared how they navigated their way out of feelings of anger and revenge back to compassion, forgiveness, and love. Wilma also explored with us the power of sharing the stories of both victims and perpetrators of crime and conflict and how compassion allowed her and Cliff to cross boundaries and work within the criminal justice system, presenting alternatives to cycles of conflict, violence, crime, and injustice and building a climate of tolerance, resilience, hope, and compassion. Wilma and Cliff’s story features in Malcolm Gladwell’s book David and Goliath and could be described as a portrait of compassion as a source of strength for a couple who could otherwise have been consumed by hate and despair.
Wilma and Cliff spent the best part of a week with us. Wilma worked with all of our secondary students and Cliff worked with our artists. Wilma also addressed our parents on the importance and power of relational forgiveness.
Wilma’s keynote was followed by workshops facilitated by ISY faculty. These workshops covered topics around compassion, service learning, the experiences of third culture kids (TCKs), the experiences of a local scholarship student at ISY, developing cultural intelligence, working with dyslexia, non-violent communication, and technology that helps students provide feedback to their peers and document their service.
If Wilma’s keynote could be described as a portrait of compassion as strength, the faculty workshops could be described as an exploration of some of the perspectives upon which compassionate action is predicated. The TCK workshop was presented by a teacher with two TCKs and another teacher who is a TCK. The scholarship student workshop was presented by a teacher who was formerly a scholarship student at ISY. These workshops gave invaluable insights into the perspectives, struggles, frustrations, and needs of students who we encounter every day. Equipped with these insights, those teachers in attendance left better prepared to build relationships, alleviate frustrations, and meet the needs of these students. These were just two examples.
Around the same time as the conference, as part of our ongoing Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) Focus on Learning Self-Study, we confirmed and aligned our ISY Lifelong Learner Outcomes with our mission, vision, and accompanying strategic themes of service learning, inclusion, celebrating culture and diversity, environmental consciousness, and technology integration.
Ultimately, we want our students to develop into:
• Compassionate Global Citizens
• Lifelong Learners
• Agents for Positive Change
To support these learner outcomes, we will strive to instill in our students the following ISY Lifelong Learning Attributes:
• Compassion
• Collaboration
• Communication
• Courage
• Creativity
• Critical Thinking
• Reflection
It is no coincidence that compassion is at the top of this list. We believe that compassion for others is what will drive our students and faculty to use their academic knowledge, skills, and lifelong learning attributes to make the positive difference that the world is crying out for in so many different ways. l
Mike Simpson is Director of Curriculum and Learning at The International School Yangon.

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12/28/2019 - John
Hi Mike,

Thanks for the article. It's nice to hear about your unconventional approaches to student-centred learning but I think your article gets to the heart of the issue. Compassion is key.

I helped develop a conference at my previous school where the students lead workshops and gave presentations on mental health. I think that seeing students put center stage in solving these issues that affect them and utilizing those skills is really motivating for me as a teacher.

Without critical thinking skills, how are they going to make any positive contributions to this complex and rapidly changing world? All of these attributes are interchangeable and necessary for the development of the 'whole' child.

We focus so much on job development and university acceptance, but once students get to where they need to be will they be able to or even want to serve their communities?

Thanks for sharing your experiences with us.
12/20/2019 - Barbara B. Reynolds
Nice article Mike! Are you still teaching at this school or have you returned to NZ? I really like the 5C's and then Reflection...We need more of this in our schools and around the world to cope with learning and life!

All the best to you and yours.....Happy, healthy New Year!

Barb Reynolds



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