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Compassion in the Classroom: Kindergartners learn they can save lives now!


Susan Passi-Klaus
July 24th, 2015

In a Nashville, Tennessee, classroom, kindergartners learn more than academic basics; they learn to care for others.

During the last few years, science lessons about butterflies have morphed into lessons about mosquitoes. With the help of their teacher, children got the message. The mosquitoes that irritate them at ball practice and barbecues actually kill children in other countries.

Teacher Joe Baughman, 33, first posed the problem. In Africa, one child dies every minute from a mosquito bite.

Many small hands raised with questions. “Can we catch malaria?” “How many people are dying?” “How do we stop it?”  Gradually, a revelation hit the sheltered young ones: Why do we think more about pairs of shoes and toys more than we care about the lives of others?

“I love finding these moments that unify kids,” Baughman said. “I try to give them the opportunity to give back and help them find purpose in life, even at an early age.”

Baughman is the kind of person you just want to hug. Every day, the 4- and 5-year- olds in his class deliver their devotion, let loose their curiosity and delve into their discoveries. In Baughman’s class, they also open their eyes to a world outside their own. His influence has extended far beyond his classroom, with educators such as Phillip Glidewell, Grace Paulus, Julie Staehiling, and Baughman's entire kindergarten team (Anna Watkins, Stephanie Posada, Charity Newman, Ashley Hescock, Jamie Martin, Nina Reed, and Caty Caesar) also taking up the charge.

Sure, the kids learn the basics of growing up, experiencing independence and playing nicely with others. However, Baughman emphasizes something unique in his class curriculum. He teaches little kids about charity – about giving back and putting their emotions into actions.

“It is part of my reason for teaching,” he said.

“I follow a simple pattern to foster a compassionate view of the world,” he said. “Students break an egocentric box of perception of the world around them. They let go of seeing the world as it meets their immediate needs and develop more complex ideas about how to relate to others based on who they are.”

Baughman admitted he struggled in his first year of teaching in the inner city. Eventually, he concluded that if he was supposed to be a teacher, he needed to be true to his principles. That meant that Baughman would prioritize preparing his students to make a difference in the world. He said the realization changed his teaching career forever.

"One of my former students lost a twin sister to malaria while in an orphanage in Africa. One child dying every minute is a statistic everyone can connect with," says Baughman.

‘Teaching about things that matter’

“My message is that no matter what perspective you have of diversity – culture, race, ethnicity, economics, etcetera, you can still help others,” he said. “I have learned that children are capable of much more than we give them credit for. Their curiosity is something to capitalize on. It’s nothing to shelter them from.”

In the past several years, malaria has been his teaching tool. Beginning with a connection to Nothing but Nets and later developing a relationship with Imagine No Malaria, Baughman uses science and social studies as doors to creative thinking and problem solving. His room has a full-scale aquaponic garden, a 3-foot catapult, an air-powered rocket launcher, a guitar, a hockey stick, basketball hoops and a pointer named Bill. He uses the same kind of creative tools to help kids learn about malaria.

“We hatched mosquito larvae in small dishes of pond water placed on upside-down five-gallon bucket lids,” he described. “Circular tomato cages covered with mosquito netting snapped perfectly into the lid and allowed the kids to observe every stage of development and to experiment with bed nets and other ‘simple’ techniques that can reduce the spread of malaria.”

In addition, Baughman’s classes put on informative plays; made African masks depicting mosquitoes, doctors and tribal characters; and wrote public-service announcements to inspire others. They even invited a parent who had moved from Africa and shared about being infected twice.

“The topic of malaria is tragic and hard to learn about,” he said. “Most topics of worthy of change are. If we really want to change things, then we need lifetimes of work, not just adulthood.

“We don’t talk just about college and whether they want to be a doctor, firefighter or soldier,” Baughman said. “That stuff is far away for a 5-year-old, but saving a life or making a difference are things they can do right now.”

“I have and always will learn more from my students than they will ever learn from me,” Baughman said. “Teaching about things that matter allows me to be a better father and husband in a way that is glorifying to God.”

Freelance writer Susan Passi-Klaus lives in Nashville, Tennessee.