Empathy is s keyword for me in 2019 and one that I want to focus on with my class, school and family. Lately, I’ve been asking myself, “How will I become a person of empathy this year?” I’ve also thought about how I can lead my students and family into greater empathy for others. This post is about some of the different strategies that I want to use to develop empathy in 2019.

Four Qualities of Empathy

Empathy has several different aspects to it. One definition that I have found helpful is Theresa Wiseman’s four qualities of empathy, referenced by Brene Brown in I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) (2008).

To be able to see the world as others see it

Wiseman’s first quality of empathy is to see the world as others see it. This requires putting your own concerns aside to view the situation through another person’s eyes. One way that I’d like to cultivate empathy in myself is to intentionally read personal memoirs, autobiographies and biographies by authors who have different lives, beliefs and challenges than I do. How can I really communicate with others who have different beliefs or values than me if I don’t work at understanding their perspectives? I haven’t done a good job at this in the past. I’ve often read narrowly, inside an echo chamber of people just like me, and that doesn’t help to foster empathy.

To be nonjudgmental

The second quality of empathy Wiseman suggests is to be nonjudgmental. Making quick judgements of another person’s situation often discounts their experience and is an attempt to protect ourselves from the pain of the situation. In other words, it is a refusal to get into the messiness and hurt of the other person’s situation. Using stereotypes to form inaccurate assumptions is easy and often damaging to others. Asking more questions and listening to others is difficult and requires huge reserves of patience. This year, I want to become a better listener, someone who can be silent and connect without feeling the need to offer advice or try to put a positive spin on things.

To understand another person’s feelings 

Wiseman’s third quality of empathy is to understand the feelings of others. We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else’s. One habit I started in 2018, that I would like to continue this year, is stream-of-consciousness journaling. The traditional memoir style journaling, where every journal entry has completely developed thoughts and neat paragraphs, has never worked for me. It is too time-consuming and doesn’t help me get my thoughts and emotions out onto the page. Writing out random thoughts, experiences and emotions in bullet point, rapid-fire succession is far more effective. I’ve found that journaling, in this way, has allowed me to better understand my own feelings and responses. I think it has also helped me understand the feelings and responses of others.

To understand the feelings of students in my class, I want to continue using several different strategies to encourage these conversations. Over the last few months, I have started a Mood Meter in my class. The concept is very simple but effective. Students come into my class in the morning and move their name to the part of the meter that shows how they are feeling. Sometimes I ask the class if any of them would like to share about the feeling they indicated. Other times, it just helps me get an overall sense for the mood of the class.

A few days ago, I shared where I was on the meter. I told the class that I had a rough morning trying to get to school. One of my sons had decided to look for his library book just 10 minutes before we left the house. When he wasn’t successful in finding it, he burst into tears. He felt rushed and frustrated. For the duration of our trip to school, he whined about not having his book. It was amazing how this small story gave my students permission to share how they were feeling. I ended up learning much more about their lives and having a better understanding of how they were feeling that day.

To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings

Wiseman’s last quality of empathy is to communicate your understanding of what another person is feeling. Rather than saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse…” Brown suggests trying, “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”

This quality is deeply connected to the second quality and reminds me of, what counsellors refer to as, active listening. The general purpose of active listening is to question, clarify and reflect back the emotion and connected circumstances. After listening and questioning, the counsellor might say, “You are feeling ___________ (insert emotion) because of ________________ (insert circumstance). Is this correct?”

Active listening in the classroom looks different than in a counselling office but there are practices that help teachers tune into students’ emotions. One of them is greeting students as they come into class. I’ll never forget watching the video clip (linked below) of Barry White Jr.’s personalized handshakes with his class and realizing the power of a simple face-to-face greeting.

Let’s be honest, I’ll never have the moves that Mr. White has but I can definitely improve what I’m doing right now. Too often, I’m sitting in front of computer screen answering emails when my students come into my classroom. Or, even worse, I’m just guarding the door to make sure my students aren’t late. How much more in-tune would I be with the emotional life of my class if I was standing outside my class greeting students face-to-face as they came in? That is one question that I would like to answer in 2019.

Morning meetings are another great idea for building community and understanding the emotional landscape of your classroom. Lisa Dabbs wrote this great post about morning meetings for Edutopia. She does a great job of answering the what, why and how of morning meetings. She also gives some great examples of how different teachers use them.

I’d love to hear any comments below about how you are building empathy in your classroom or community.

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