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“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.”
—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

NO MAT TER HOW conflicted we may feel about this historical moment, the surest path to calmness and healing is to develop an active warm heart. These are trying and conflicting times. It is not me, but us who can bring calm to the moment. We, the educators, must lead our students and fellow educators by becoming our best selves. Trying times create opportunities to see more clearly.

Richard Cohen

After three days working with a very conflicted fifth and sixth grade class, as I was leaving, a girl handed me a note that said apologetically, “The people who don’t care truly do care.” If we listen with a warm heart, the one who makes you angry does care; we just don’t understand her or his struggle.  This presents us with the opportunity “to make minds together,” as author Dan Siegel tells us in Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human.

Unfortunately, our reactivity that comes either from our taking everything personally or from our ego that prevents us from truly understanding each other, gets in the way. This is why we must become our best selves if we are to educate, to lead forward. This requires both an internal and external paradigm shift — from the judgmental to the compassionate, from punishing to healing. Can we replace punishment and exclusion with kindness?

What I just said about a paradigm shift in education applies equally to all our other self-perpetuating systems: systemic racism, criminal injustice, environmental mismanagement, economic injustice, gender inequality, religious intolerance, and on and on.

“We must become our best selves if we are to educate, to lead forward.  This requires both an internal and external paradigm shift — from the judgmental to the compassionate, from punishing to healing.”

Now we need kindness. As Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, “The quality of mercy is not Listen With a Warm Heart By Richard Cohen strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

The questions remain: What is this internal work that we must do? How do we learn to be a more empathic, centered, calm and compassionate person?

If we acquire a beginner’s mind, we can stop making assumptions about what is going on. Every situation presents us with a unique opportunity, an opportunity to grow and expand our understandings. We don’t know until we look carefully at what is happening — who am I, and who is the person with whom I am trying to connect?

Can we learn to respond and not react? Can we stop taking criticism as a personal attack? Can we bring peace to the moment of disruptive acting out?  To do this requires determination and patience. Old patterns of anger and insecurity run deep. From my perspective (and everyone must find their own way), if I can separate the problem from the person, it is much easier to accept those feelings as being “out there,” not a symptom of some personal moral deficiency.  Anger is the problem; you are not the problem. Treat anger, like any other negative emotion, as a third person. Anger got to me, not I am an angry person. This makes it easier to take responsibility for harsh and hurtful feelings, thoughts and words.  This requires a mindful awareness of how you are feeling at the moment and what steps you can take to let it go.

Another related tool that I find helpful is to pause and ask myself, “What’s going on here?”  This deconstructive inquiry allows me to step back and reflect inwardly upon the relationship between myself and the person with whom I am relating. Am I aware of the complete person and the cultural environment from which they came? This deeper inquiry brings greater understandings that help us respond to what is truly happening, rather than react to it. What is real is not always true.


Richard Cohen is a lawyer, academic, mediator and restorative justice practitioner. He has been a substitute teacher at Sacramento City Unified School District the past four years, and a member of Sacramento City Teachers Association until schools closed in spring.