Compassion is important to me because it connects me to what really matters in my job. Without it, I would risk losing the essence of my work.
— Katarzyna Kubacka
In this conversation, I am gaining Katarzyna (Kaśka) Kubacka’s perspectives on compassion in her research work in the education sector. We talk about how compassion can both fuel us by connecting us to meaning and drain us by feeling emotionally overwhelmed. How can we stay connected to the compassion that drives us and how can we use it as a compass in navigating data collection and analysis? These are some of the questions that Kaśka delves into.
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This article features in a series of interviews where I explore how purpose-driven professionals who are dedicated to contribute towards a just, equitable and sustainable world relate to the notion of “compassion”. What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? This series is dedicated to professionals offering their personal stories and perspectives.
Katarzyna (Kaśka) Kubacka currently leads the international education and development research and evaluation portfolio at NFER (National Foundation for Educational Research).
Her work worldwide focuses on strengthening education systems and aims to make meaningful positive impact on access and quality of education for all learners. She has previously provided technical inputs and research expertise working in international education programmes at organisations such as OECD and UNESCO.
Her academic background is in social psychology and she enjoys bringing insights from this discipline into her work on education, for instance in her work on socio-emotional skills. She is a Polish national, currently living in London. In her spare time she loves hiking and enjoys all things cultural.
SJ: What resonates with you when you hear the word “compassion”?
KK: I resonate with the idea that most of us enter the international development sector for reasons connected to compassion or empathy. In my experience, this is often the motivation that gives us the drive to do something meaningful.
I have noticed that over time this can dissipate once you get bogged down in the administrative parts of a job.
Recently, I have been thinking about how we can protect this initial “compassionate perspective”. If we feel we are starting to lose it, how do we bounce back to it or reignite it?
On the flip side of that, I am also considering how we can protect ourselves from feeling that empathy or compassion too deeply where it is causing us too much pain.
SJ: If we played devil’s advocate here for a moment, why would we really need compassion to do our work in the sector?
KK: Some might believe that “being successful” means putting compassion and the connection to others aside in certain environments so you can move ahead with your career for example.
Compassion is important to me because it connects me to what really matters in my job. Without it, I would risk losing the essence of my work and the rewarding and exciting parts of my role, which is connecting to the reality of others.
If we are unable to access our emotions — which in most cases is a subconscious decision and a consequence of feeling overwhelmed or burnt out — I think we miss out on an important guiding compass. A compass that can guide us personally, in our careers and in our work as researchers.
SJ: What has allowed you to keep that connection to compassion throughout your career?
KK: Coming back to the question: “Why am I doing this?” and keeping it central in my mind. Seeking opportunities to connect with people and colleagues from different countries and different pathways is another important aspect — especially as someone who is based in the Global North and working with the Global South.
Having a human connection keeps compassion going. We need to put a human experience of the forefront of what we do, otherwise it just becomes writing reports, analysing data, meeting budgets etc.
SJ: What makes it tricky to create that human experience or connection?
KK: Of course, it has been tricky during the pandemic because we have been put in more virtual settings. While this in some ways increases the opportunity for “connection” remotely it has also made it harder to really know someone and having a connection in a more spiritual way. I think this kind of connection beyond the zoom meetings, agendas and to-do lists is key to making things work.
If I were to play devil’s advocate, creating a human connection is also tiring. It requires energy to put yourself in other people’s shoes. It can be distressing too. I have witnessed others interviewing people in conflict and extreme poverty settings for example. These stressful situations and stories shared can make us shut parts of ourselves off, which I can see as wise and required to persevere in the moment.
SJ: It strikes me as interesting how compassion can both fuel us by connecting us to meaning and drain us by feeling emotionally overwhelmed. It seems there is a balance to be stricken. How are you perceiving this balance in your work?
KK: I read research and hear stories through interviewing people that are not pleasant. For instance, if I am conducting interviews with schoolteachers and they share that their pupils are not able to study because they are hungry, it is very hard to not feel anything. If I do not think about this distress — or feel it in some way — I would be disconnecting myself from the nature of my work.
If I am not able to adequately represent the reality of what I am hearing, writing an evaluation report or research project feels meaningless to me. The key is to keep my sensitivity, to find a place where I can continue to feel this in a healthy dose, without being inoculated to it, when I hear this story repeatedly.
If you want to create impact, you need to tell a story that resonates. To tell that story, most of us need to experience it emotionally too, or at least be able to understand these emotions.
SJ: What happens if we can’t keep our sensitivity or experience things emotionally in a research setting? What is the risk?
KK: In a qualitative research setting, interviewees feel it when the interviewer is not connected, not truly present to listen to them.
As an interviewer, you want to be empathetic and compassionate, so the respondent feels at ease and able to share their stories with you. At the same time, overwhelming the respondent with your own emotions will skew the responses.
The respondent’s story is always the one that should lead and guide the conversation. Creating a feeling of trust is essential here. It is hard to trust someone if we don’t think a person can understand our emotions. In that sense, compassion and emotional reassurance as an interviewer paves the way for trust in a research setting.
On the data analysing side of things, I think compassion can be an important compass. It can help you consider where the biggest need is and draw attention to this for a particular policy maker or group of people to notice.
There are always many details you uncover in research which can be a distraction. Compassion can help you find and determine the one need that is important to be highlighted.
SJ: Would it be adequate then to say that a lack of compassion could lead to lower data quality?
KK: It is both a data quality and reliability problem.
Without compassion, we risk missing the key research or evaluation questions because we do not fully hear and understand the problems and realities of a particular person or community.
This could lead to lower data quality. In a similar way, a lack of compassion risks missing out on the key variable to observe — because we have missed the essence of the problem. In that sense, results will not be reliable.
Generally, I believe a lack of compassion translates into lower impact because you will not be able to tell a story and draw people’s attention to what is of utmost importance to the population and the situation.
SJ: What is a concrete example at work for you where these different facets of compassion come into play?
KK: I recently interviewed teachers in a country in West Africa who had gone through a one-off training programme. They were eager for more support to implement their learning. Hearing this desire to go beyond their day-to-day obligations was powerful. Connecting with that then allowed me to think about how to support them. How can this motivation be maintained so they do not get worn out by the realities of their classrooms and the lack of support they generally face?
Taking a compassionate perspective, I find it interesting to pause and reflect on what this means for the individual teacher and what this means in connection to what I might hear from the policymaker and other elements of the system.
SJ: What impact would you say you had because you took a compassionate perspective?
KK: The impact I can have as a researcher is to communicate perspectives effectively. I can communicate to policy makers that underneath the teachers’ dissatisfaction with the support provided lies a tremendous motivation to be good teachers. This understanding can help bridge the discussion. If I am in a role of recording teachers’ views and passing them on, my guiding question becomes: How can I do justice to the voices of the teachers and how can I pass them on in a way where I can make the biggest impact?
SJ: It’s almost like taking a compassionate perspective in your role as a researcher also allows all viewpoints to be revealed.
KK: Absolutely, I think this is key.
Considering different perspectives on an issue can be illuminating in a system full of inter dependencies, such as education systems.
Without realising and recognising that a problem is complicated, solutions risk only addressing a part of the issue.
SJ: What is an example of a complicated problem you have worked on where you have encountered a lack of compassion?
KK: I recently worked on the topic of accountability for the Global Education Monitoring Report. “Accountability” brings up feelings of being under surveillance and looming punishment for teachers in their day-to-day practice. Theoretically, accountability is a neutral tool to learn from — you learn from both the good and the bad — which is generally the perspective that policy makers take.
Across the world, I spoke to people on different sides of the accountability jigsaw and their common trait was feeling misunderstood by the other stakeholders. If you create a system where the stakes are high and depend on a narrow set of success indicators — in this example, the number of school children that pass their exams into the next level of education — it polarises people. Once you have this polarisation, you lose compassion because a narrative of “them versus us” is created.
SJ: When we feel misunderstood it makes it harder to have trusting and open conversations. What do you see as potential pathways forward to remedy this in the sector?
KK: When we feel misunderstood, we retreat into an anxious state and from this place, we seek security and shelter rather than growth. We spend less time analysing and more time reacting and doing what we can to feel safe, which in turn creates “survival” relationships rather than sustainable, authentic relationships. Over time, this creates situations in which people are always on edge and prone to see actions by the other as an attack rather than simply a policy decision for example.
Once you have broken the unity of “we are working for the same good” it takes effort to move forward on the same team again. The first step is to acknowledge that damage has happened and take steps to rebuild trust.
An important element of trust is our ability to predict — to some extent — what the other will do based on previous behaviour. Essentially, I can trust you because I know you will tend to act a certain way, which will not harm me. Redrawing the lines of “them versus us” is critical and I think more compassion for the other can help here — although it isn’t easy!
SJ: How do you see the relationship between passion — which often fuels the education sector — and compassion?
KK: The education system has many inter dependencies — there’s the policy side, the teaching side, the learning side, the parent and community side etc. Crucially, it is a system that affects us all and which most of us have been a part of or gone through. I think this increases our ability to feel empathy or compassion for others — because we can relate to something from our own experiences of education.
When we turn the passion dial up on full blast, I think we risk losing compassion along the way.
For example, very passionate debates flourish on inclusion in the education sector. My feeling is that when it becomes a moral argument, disagreement becomes very hard to accept and it becomes a fight rather than a conversation.
For example, let’s say you don’t think all students belong in schools or need to be there. Then you are seen as someone who discriminates. If you discriminate, that then means you don’t believe everyone is equal under the law. The discussion then completely breaks down. It becomes harder to take a “compassion outlook” and take a step back to look for commonalities.
We all have triggers around our moral values, which can become part of our identity.
SJ: So, the more passionate we are about something, the more we need to remember and train compassion for the person with opposing views maybe?
KK: Bringing self-awareness to your own moral triggers and integrate them is more easily within your control.
Rather than telling yourself to be compassionate with the person having opposing views — which in a heated moment can be impossible to have — I think that remembering your own moral blind spot helps more.
There can also be power in deciding not to be compassionate anymore. For example, parents to children with disabilities who feel their child has been denied basic education services may at a certain stage be done with understanding the system. They have tried the peaceful, compassionate conversations, they have tried to understand why the system is the way it is and then at a certain point decide to fight or change it by going somewhere else. Enough can be enough.
SJ: I think that also speaks to this idea of “fierce” self-compassion. There is a reason and need to protect, provide, and advocate for our needs.
KK: Yes, and it is also the personal experience that matters. If this is something you deal with every day you want to say to the person denying your child access to education: “Focus on compassion for me and my child, not all the systemic factors that make things complex. Just listen to me because this is a real, lived experience I am facing.”
SJ: What concluding thoughts do you have on this topic?
kK: I found it really useful to talk to you about this, because it allowed me to pause and reflect on the true meaning of what I do and how I want to build connections to others.
The more I think about the concept of “compassion”, the more aspects, meaning and connections to life and work I discover.
In day-to-day life it is sometimes a challenge to stop and think about compassion, but I found it a rewarding experience that inspired me to look at my work and life in a new way.
This conversation is based on Katarzyna Kubacka’s personal views. They do not represent the views of the National Foundation for Educational Research or any organisation that Katarzyna has worked for previously.
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