Compassion in the Classroom with Riley Dunn

The biggest thing I learned was learning to be where I’m at.

So, of course we need to know in your words, what do you do?

I’m a middle school teacher for 7th grade social studies.

Tell us, where did your journey to teaching begin?

I definitely never thought I would be teaching, but when I look back all of my experiences served me in doing what I do today and it’s easy to be myself in this position. The journey really began in college. I had the intended path of becoming a lawyer because I thought that running for office or doing something in a courthouse was the only way to make an impact. But while I was in school I dealt with mental health things like anxiety and depression and I really just hit rock bottom. But what that experience gave me was the opportunity to see that I lost track of who I was. I was so caught up in what I told myself I should do instead of what I actually wanted to do. I almost dropped out because at the time I didn’t know what else I could do and as I started questioning all of it I was panicked. I felt like a failure and was embarrassed that all the people who helped get through my education would be disappointed in me if I didn’t follow through. But all of this lead me to reconsider my path to law school.

When did you realize teaching was the vocation for you?

There were a couple of moments in my life where that path was starting to unfold for me. I took a professional development class at some point in college and the professor required that we volunteer. I thought my volunteering days were over after high school so I was not about this at all. I ended up volunteering at a library and I remember one of the employees talked about how there are children in this country who don’t know how to read at all and that completely blew my mind. On my first day volunteering one of the employees pulled me aside asking if I could teach a civic class for a classroom full of adults trying to get their citizenship. I was sure they had the wrong person because I was 18 years old, I was still in college and was in no way certified to be a teacher. But they insisted and 5 minutes before the class they handed me a workbook to teach off of and I was the youngest person in the room teaching government to a class of all ethnicities and ages. I remember feeling despite how crazy that situation was, like this was the only place I felt like I was truly myself. I don’t think I really made the connection to teach though until one summer I served as a Director of Events for a youth program (which also came to me out of the blue since the head director asked me personally to take this position after I interviewed him for a paper). While working in that program one of the students we found out had joined a gang and long story short it was a tragic ending with our student getting into some trouble and it ending with him shooting a police officer and then taking his own life. This was in the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement and I was living in South so this really shifted my world and it was something that made me realize that the kid I saw was a leader and a good kid in his program and yet whatever was going on in his personal life, he felt so alone and unaccepted that he felt he had to join a gang to feel seen. This just wasn’t right to me. And I was challenged with how do we create the space to have real, honest conversations with children about these things and give them a place to feel seen and heard since students spend most of their time in school. As teachers, we just aren’t equipped with these things and I really wanted to change that. Children need connection and they need to have safe relationships with adults so they can trust the world. For me I realized I want to be on the frontlines and teachers are on the frontlines every day because we have so much influence on our children and the impacts of that just can’t be measured. I struggled a bit with accepting that maybe teaching was part of my path even though I could so easily myself doing this because it’s not considered “impressive”. But, eventually when I graduated I decided to go for it and am pursuing my Masters in Education at the same time right now.

Such an amazing story and it really goes to show how when something is for us, it will always cross our path and if it’s not it will feel like a struggle to work out. Spirit moves in mysterious ways…. What did you learn through all of this?

So many things and I think I’m still processing all I’ve learned from the last few years. Mostly, though, I struggled with a lot of shame, embarrassment, and fear that I was dissappointing people because when I graduated college I did not have a career right away. I was working 3 jobs as a barista, a nanny, and an hourly job in retail and I felt like a complete failure. But the truth was, was that I enjoyed pouring coffee for $9.50 an hour. And yet I felt I had to be more impressive. What I learned is that nobody is ever going to have it figured out. I don’t know who I’m going to be in 20 years and I absolutely love that. It’s letting yourself be a “hummingbird” as Elizabeth Gilbert refers to it in her Flight of the Hummingbird talk. To just follow your curiuosity no matter what length of time and just see where it leads you. I followed it and lead me to something I really love and care about. Overall, I learned to be where I’m at. I realized I never really allowed myself to just be where I’m at. And if I did I probably would have caught onto certain things in the moment but at the same time there’s not one day that goes by when I teach that I don’t utilize something I learned as a barista, as a nanny or as a retail salesperson. Everything matters and so even if you don’t like where you are it will matter to you at some point because the dots will connect. It’s just about accepting yourself.

Love that so much. Being where you’re at is something I’ve learned on my journey too. Thank you for saying that for us all. Running a classroom can be crazy, I’m sure, so how do you show up every day and what keeps you going?

I try. That’s really all I can do! I definitely make mistakes and as a teacher you can’t lay low when you’re having a bad day. What I try to do is channel Brenè Brown and remind myself that everyone’s just doing their best. Me, my kids, my co-workers, my loved ones. What I want my kids to feel in my classroom is that no matter what, they are always loved and important. Even if a kid slams my desk one day, the next day I’ll still give them a smile and say hello. I want them to have a fresh start and know that it’s never too late to try again. I want to build a relationship with my kids and your kids start to trust you when you do mess up and still make it okay. That relationship to my kids and to show up with compassion is what keeps me going. People like to hate on middle schoolers and I really want to change that rethoric because to work with middle schoolers and have compassion for them, you have to really get in touch with your own inner 13-year-old and have compassion for where you were at at that time in your life. I am constantly learning how to love myself through that because I have to show up with that love for my kids. That keeps me going too.

So beautiful. We need more teachers like you! What do you love about what you do and how do you feel it’s where you most naturally shine?

The thing is, if I stuck to pouring coffee I could have done it and enjoyed it… but I would never risk getting my heart broken. I would have nothing to lose. With teaching, I risk getting my heart broken every day and I wouldn’t want it any other way. It puts me right in the arena. I care so much about it, that sometimes I care too much. There are times I might drive home crying from a hard day and yet creating the classroom I believe these kids deserve is so effortless and I don’t feel drained doing it. It’s where I shine because when I’m teaching I feel the most confident. I truly believe what I’m doing is beneficial to my students and has value so it’s where I believe in myself the most. I’m not doing this just to pay the rent so I’m passionate about it and it’s the place where I truly feel I’m doing something right. I make mistakes in it, but I get to learn and keep trying.

We can’t become self-actualized if we don’t feel safe, loved, and nurtured.

As a teacher who is leading with compassion in your classroom, what methods do you use to create a relationship with your students and make them feel seen and understood?

I aim every Friday in my class to spend 20 mins at the beginning of class talking about something with my kids other than school. Whether that’s a topic going on in the nation or just giving my kids the space to share something in their lives, I want my students to feel they can trust me and their peers. What I’ve learned in teaching is that content is second, being a good human is first and I don’t know how we messed that up. We can’t self actualize if we don’t feel safe, loved and nurtured and if we aren’t meeting those needs first in our children then we’re doing it wrong. I know I’m doing something right because a boy in my class opened up to me about how he had just been having a hard time and like everything seems to be piling on. For him to feel safe enough to open up, especially as a young man, was really important for me. What I do with my kids in a situation like that is ask them “how can I support you?” Whether if that’s needing a 5 min break or needing advice. I want them to feel empowered to learn how to navigate their lives.

Teacher of the year. FOR REAL. Since you’re always showing up for your classroom, how do you self care and take care of you?

I’m still learning, honestly. I’m trying to find that balance. One of the best things I’ve heard about teaching is “Teaching is never done” so accepting that helps me to find a little bit more balance. One thing I do that I didn’t use to do though, is reach out for guidance from other people. I didn’t do this as a student and I learned how beneficial it is. Even if they don’t have the best advice, at least they can say they’ve been there and that I’m not alone. Also, taking advice from people who are where you want to be. I’ve had a lot of conversations from just reaching out to people I admire and telling them I admire them.

What advice do you have for teachers or other women wanting to become teachers?

  1. ) If it’s hard, know that doesn’t mean youre doing it wrong. It’s hard because you’re trying. It means you care and you’re doing it right.

  2. ) Don’t be afraid to say sorry, even if it’s to a 12-year-old.

  3. ) If you tell people you’re going to be a teacher, 99% percent of them will give you a bad reaction but that’s their shit.

  4. ) Fumble with your middle school self. To be compassionate with this age group, you have to find compassion for 13-year-old you. People carry a lot of pain from this time in their lives and it’s so easy to get angry at our kids for not doing their homework or paying attention, but compassion is the hard approach. It takes a lot of strength to continue to be loving and we can’t abandon our kids. They go through a lot of tough shit.

What advice do you have for other women in general who are leading with compassion?

Overall, don’t be afraid to go all in and never let what other people define as success define you. Have a tribe of people who you know will always be there and remind you of who you are when times get tough and support those same people back. You can’t give to others what you don’t give to yourself, so show up for yourself first!

If you’d like to connect with Riley and check out her amazing page for compassionate teaching in the classroom you can find her on Instagram @inthemessymiddle.

interviewsSirah Mora