Teaching Compassion

Olivia DelGandio with Barbara Caulfield

“Every child is different, but every child learns.”


I feel like part of my job as an artist is to pay homage to those who came before me; those who played a major role in making me the thinker and creator I am today. In the realm of positive influence, I have been so fortunate. From an early age, I was surrounded by people who were kind, caring, and creative. This has been essential to my understanding of what it means to be a person in this world. When I think back on my early life, I am struck by the role that my elementary school played on my growth and development. Of course, elementary school is a time where growing and learning happens at top speed, but year after year, I had teachers who genuinely cared for their students and did everything in their power to help us succeed. I know this isn’t the case across the board and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to say thank you to those who deserve to hear it.

So, I begin with Mrs. Caulfield, my second grade teacher. When I remember my elementary school years, Mrs. Caulfield stands out as a larger than life presence, the kindest face in the crowd, and one of the first people who really showed me what it means to be compassionate. Her classroom was an oasis of snacks and solace. It was a place where rest was welcome, learning was exciting, and kindness was the norm. Everyone was heard. Everyone was held. Although prior to this interview, it had been 10 years or more since seeing Mrs. Caulfield; the lessons she shared have lived in my heart since I was 7 years old. I wanted to take the time to tell her this, so I reached out and set up a zoom meeting. What follows is a conversation on kindness, compassion, and what it means to make a child feel important. 

Olivia and Mrs. Caulfield during their recent Zoom chat. Screenshot taken by Olivia. 
Olivia’s second grade class photo, Olivia is in the first row, all the way to the left; 2006, Weston, FL. Courtesy of Mrs. Caulfield. 

Barbara Caulfield: I don’t know if you remember this, but one day you were home sick from school… I don’t know if you know what I’m talking about?

Olivia DelGandio: Are you talking about when you all waved at me from the field?

Barbara: Yes, yes.

Olivia: Yes, it’s one of my favorite early memories!

Barbara: I remember we could see your house from school and you would always say, “There’s my house!” So that day you were home sick and we were at PE and I called your mother and she took you into the backyard and there we all were, waving at you!

Olivia: Yes! That is such a great memory. I remember it so clearly. That was the kind of stuff you did all the time, you just made your students feel so special and like you really cared about them. That really sticks with a person.

Barbara: Thank you, thank you. Actually, I’m still friends with many, many, many of my students. My oldest students that I taught turned 50 this year.

Olivia: Oh wow, that’s crazy. You know, another thing that really stuck with me about your class was that you always had blankets and pillows in the room and you let us nap in the back of the classroom if we wanted to. I just remember that being the only space in my childhood education that a teacher recognized that sometimes kids just need to chill out for a bit. I think having that lesson as a kid— if you don’t feel good, you can rest— was really important.

Barbara: I don’t know if you remember, I also had the thermometer. I would take your temperature and if you had a fever, you had to go to the nurse’s office, but if you didn’t, you could just rest in the room until you felt better. I’d also have snacks every day for the kids.

Olivia: I don’t really remember that.

Barbara: We’d have these big containers of pretzel sticks.

Olivia: Oh, it’s coming back to me! You’d always have animal crackers, too.

Barbara: Yes! Or granola bars or those little gummy packets because I know, for a kid, when you eat breakfast at 7:30 in the morning or earlier, by 10am you’ll be starving. That’s why we’d have Specials from 10-10:30 and then we’d have snacks and do Everyday Counts. 

Olivia: Oh, the sheet with the days of the week?

Barbara: Yes, you’d fill in what day it was, how many days we had been in school and how many we had left, there was trivia and science, and there was a map on the back for the geography section. You’d have to find the capital of a state and I’d color the state in on the whiteboard. Everyone was always excited to do it and we’d talk about it while we were eating snacks so we never wasted time.

Image of Every Day Counts; second grade activity. Courtesy of Mrs. Caulfield.

Olivia: It was great. I’m taking a pedagogy class at the moment and we’re talking about teaching philosophies. I’m wondering if you had a philosophy that you lived by while you were teaching?

Barbara: There was one thing I always had on my mind: every child is different, but every child learns. Not everybody learns at the same pace so you have to be careful not to lose those stragglers. I have a picture that says, “The moon and the sun both shine but not at the same time,” and I just love thinking about it that way. I don’t know if you remember me saying I hated giving homework, but I did. I only gave homework because the other teachers pressured me to. Having you in class for 6 hours, you absorbed enough. Kids are like sponges, but you can only give them so much water before they overflow and start to lose some. My philosophy on homework was to let the child go outside and play. There’s so much learning that happens just from playing outside: you trip on your untied shoelace and you learn why it’s important to tie your shoes; it starts raining and you wonder why you’re all wet. It’s learning cause and effect. You can learn so much from never having homework and just going outside.

Olivia: Absolutely. And what was your philosophy on rest and having the pillows and blankets in the room?

Barbara: I wanted all my students to feel at home. I wanted that classroom to be like their second home. I wanted students to be so excited to come to school that they were disappointed when they had to stay home. I wanted my students to be comfortable because that’s the only way they were going to learn. My last year teaching, I ended up having four autistic children because they were struggling in other classrooms. I just had to make them comfortable and treat them with dignity and respect, and they settled right in. You have to practice being kind in order for the kids to be kind. That’s why I always volunteered to take the kids with disabilities, so I could model compassion. You can’t teach compassion; kids have to learn it by seeing it. One year, I had a child with down syndrome who ended up in my room because his mother wasn’t happy with his previous school. So we all had to learn how to help him and when I say all, I mean all. All of my students helped him whenever they could, they loved taking care of him. They would hold his hand and wipe his face during eating time. They didn’t know it, but they were learning compassion.

Olivia: That’s remarkable. It’s so interesting to think about how second grade was the first year the split between gifted classes and regular classes happened. You had to pass a certain set of tests in order to get into the gifted program and I was so disappointed when I didn’t. But that’s how I ended up in your class and I’m sure learning about compassion and kindness from you did so much more for me than any gifted class would have done.

Barbara: Because at the end of the day, no matter your education, we all put our pant legs on one at a time. We’re all equal. We’re all humans and we should be treated as such. 

Olivia:  So I’m hoping to start a project at a local elementary school where my program does a lot of work. What I want to do is make clothing with the kids and talk about things like identity and feeling good in the body and making something that really fits your own style. I’m wondering if you have any words of wisdom to share about working with young kids.

Barbara: Let me tell you: just be yourself. Get to know the student and treat that student as if they’re the most important person you know for the time that you’re with them. Just always be positive. If they make a mistake, that’s okay. How can we fix it? Always “we,” never “I.” Make it about working together. And since it’s with clothes, make sure they know that any design is okay. You might think it’s an awful design, but praise it highly. That’s all you need to do with kids, listen to their ideas and make them feel important.

Olivia: Yeah, that’s the goal.

Barbara: You know, I have to tell you, right now, my heart is bursting. 

Olivia: Mine, too!

Barbara: Oh honey, you don’t know what it means to know that someone I taught way back in second grade has turned into a beautiful, smart, educated, confident, young lady going on in her education like you are. I’m just so so so so proud of you.

Olivia: Thank you! I just want you to know that you had such a major impact on that. 

Olivia DelGandio (she/they) is a mixed media artist interested in human connection, what it means to be tender, and the joy/sorrow dichotomy. She graduated from New College of Florida with a degree in Sociology/Gender Studies and is currently working on her MFA in Art and Social Practice at Portland State University. She finds solace in creating through and for grief and is currently thinking about how grieving can become more of a community practice. She likes to create books, photos and videos for and about the people she loves. The hope for these projects is to make intimate moments and connections more visible. You can find more of her work here and find her on Instagram here.

Barbara Caulfield (she/her) taught for 35 years in South Florida, after receiving her teaching degree from SUNY College at Buffalo, NY, majoring in Elementary Education, and minoring in Math. She had wanted to be a teacher since she was a child. Now, she’s happily retired and living a great life in Central Florida. 

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