Teaching about compassion

May 16, 2002, vol. 24, no. 2
By Marianne Meadahl

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Those who work in hard-nosed fields such as law enforcement, corrections, police or social work have to be tough.

But for SFU students preparing for such careers, Neil Madu is encouraging the flip side. He's teaching them how to bring compassion to the job.

His methods don't exactly go by the book. “Don't just follow a rule,” he advises students enrolled in his courses on criminology and ethics. “Look behind it.”

Madu was hired last fall as the school of criminology's field practice coordinator. The job involves placing and tracking students as they undertake work practicums. He is a former educational advisor and therapist, facilitator in the holistic health practitioner program at Langara College and instructor at Okanagan University College in the human service worker program.

At SFU, Madu teaches two courses, including crim 369, a course on ethics and interpersonal skills, which takes a practical look at the various codes of ethics. But it is not cut and dried. It could more simply be dubbed Compassion 101.

“My job is to help students become more compassionate, effective workers in the fields they are about to enter,” says Madu.
He also coordinates the practicum placement for students taking his other course, crim 462. That course focuses on professional ethics, personal ethics and growth, and therapeutic helping skills. “As the course unfolds, the three directions slowly integrate into one experience - one's personal/professional response to ethical dilemmas,” explains Madu.

“I ask that students use the professional codes as guidelines for their conduct, while discerning for themselves, the best course of action.” Sometimes, he will even suggest a person act unethically (yet still according to the professional code) because “a higher principle” is being called into question.

“This requires a depth of self-understanding, an honourable heart and integral attitude about being in the world and maintaining compassionate relationships with other people,” he says.

“Responding to ethical dilemmas will be the most challenging part of the day to day job. Students need to consider how to approach them, and what impact their actions will have.”

But how do those preparing to combat the often rough and tumble world of crime and social ill react to Madu's call to “get in touch with their humanness?” About a third of his students begin class with obvious skepticism. “I've seen those with tough, know-it-all attitudes make a 180 degree turnaround in class,” says Madu. “At some point, caring and compassion kick in. Usually, it starts when they understand how to befriend themselves and love who they are. Soon, they begin to see that they can respond to situations with more mindfulness, more critical thinking, and more heart.”

Sometimes the inner reflection does more. In one case, Madu watched a tough guy student heading for police work decline his practicum and shift towards a career in probation. “He realized his desire was to work on a different front line. The process touched something.”

Madu says workers in such fields are usually encouraged not to get mentally involved. “I teach them to get involved, but with integrity,” he says. “We want to produce the most integral, exemplary and authentic individuals. This will only translate into better results in whatever area they choose to work.

“The closer students get to living their own truth,” Madu adds, “the more likely their personal ethics will kick in with daily life.”

Madu says the courses are a perfect fit for him, considering his own approach to personal growth.

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