A Year of Empathy

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.

Stories Clear Familiarity Fog

Familiarity with an idea can be a really good thing. Having some exposure to a certain word or concept can speed along the learning process and build deep understanding. However, the opposite is also true. Familiarity can dull our minds and prevent us from deeper learning.

Selflessness is something we talk about a lot in my class. I want the student to understand our class as a learning community and think about what it looks like to put the needs of others before their own. Even though I want this to be a central focus of the classroom, if I come back to it in the same way too often, it loses its power and students are lulled to sleep by things they have heard before.

Fresh Stories Clear the Fog

One solution to counteract the fog of familiarity is to tell fresh, powerful stories that illustrate selflessness in a variety of ways. They allow my students to gain deeper perspectives and have fresh inspiration to serve others. Stories are also a secret weapon to engage the head and heart of a person in a way that is impossible when communicating with bare principles or propositions.

One recent example of a story that brought the concept of selflessness to life was in Suzanne Collin’s book, Hunger Games. Last week, I was re-reading the story and was struck by the selflessness of Katniss Everdeen as she volunteers as a tribute at the reaping.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the reaping ceremony is required by the Capitol to remind every district in the country of Panem of their submission to its power. Two child tributes are chosen from every district to compete in a lethal competition called the hunger games. The games require a male and female representative from each of the Districts to fight to the death in an enclosed area. Katniss is one of many impoverished residents of District 12. Her mother and younger sister, Prim, are all that is left of her family after her father died in a mine explosion years earlier. As a result of her father’s death, her mother falls into a paralyzing depression and Katniss is forced to be the primary caregiver and provider for her family.

On the night of the reaping ceremony, the mayor gives a speech reminding District 12 of their historic defeat by the Capitol and why they must offer tributes to the hunger games every year. The district’s female tribute is chosen, and to Katniss’s horror, it’s her 12-year-old sister, Prim. The crowd is disturbed by the draw of such a young tribute who will surely meet a sudden death in the arena. Katniss shakes off the shock of the moment and volunteers as tribute in her sister’s place.

To acknowledge her heroic act, the residents of District 12 touch the three middle fingers of their left hand to their lips and hold it out to Katniss. Collins describes this gesture as, “old and rarely used…occasionally seen at funerals. It means thanks, it means admiration, it means good-bye to someone you love (p. 24).”

Katniss’ powerful act of love for her sister is contrasted by the selection of the male tribute that follows. Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son, is also chosen as a tribute but his only brother, that can volunteer to take his place, refuses. His refusal to risk his life for his brother underlines Katniss’ radical act on her sister’s behalf. It is a love that goes deeper than family devotion.

Effie Trinket asks for volunteers, but no one steps forward. He [Peeta] has two older brothers, I know, I’ve seen them in the bakery, but one is probably too old now to volunteer and the other won’t. This is standard. Family devotion only goes so far for most people on reaping day. What I did was the radical thing.

The Hunger Games — Suzanne Collins

“The radical thing” is what my students and I need to be reminded of every day. We want to be a community marked by radical devotion and servant leadership that puts the needs of others before our own. Stories like these grab our attention and inspire us out of our familiarity fog to be what we hope to be.

Do you have a story that has inspired your class lately? Tell your story or link your blog post below. I’d love to read it. If you would like to share this section of Hunger Games with your students, it is available from scholastic here.

Teachers as Human Beings

Building relationships with students is a foundational skill of a teacher. However, sometimes particular modes of instruction obstruct the teacher’s ability to build relationships, and therefore, the ability of students to learn. Teachers occupy numerous roles in their craft.  They act as tutors, counselors, evaluators, presenters, coaches, first-aiders and hosts (just to name a few). Many of these roles conceal the human-ness of a teacher.  In other words, a particular role can increase the relational distance in the teacher-student relationship making well-intentioned teachers into aliens.

Another way of illustrating this issue is to think about parenting. One role of being a father is much like law enforcement. There are certain rules of fair play in our family and when someone breaks a rule, I deal with the grievances that are reported and work to facilitate reconciliation. This often involves facilitating a small courtroom scenario where I listen carefully to both sides of the story and make an official ruling on the case. If I didn’t function in this role, I can only imagine the cycle of revenge that might occur. However, I don’t think that I would be a very good dad if I couldn’t switch out of my law enforcement role to also become a friend who has fun with them or a counselor who gives them advice. Teaching is similar to parenting in this way because no one wants a teacher that is always functioning as the rule enforcer or evaluator.

Of course, it’s easy to know that you should switch roles but difficult to create spaces where the switch can happen. In my experience, it often requires a different context and intentional planning. Struggles to find resources or parent support for experiences in different settings are real. With parenting, something as simple as taking one child out for ice cream might be all you need to create the space for a meaningful conversation. With a group of nearly 30 students, that switch of context isn’t so easy, and yet, if you are intentional about finding new opportunity to connect with your students, they seem to appear.

Finding Different Relational Spaces

Winding down the first term of school as we approached the Christmas break provided a number of opportunities to get to know my students as fellow human beings. Many of the year-end Christmas traditions in my class are focused on community-building.  In the past, I’ve approached these events as time-fillers or ways to manage students as their pre-holiday excited grew. This year was different because relationship building has become a bigger priority in my classroom.

One unexpected opportunity to connect with students was our Middle School, Christmas assembly that involved a teacher, lip sync battle. Even though performing on stage in front of 300 middle-schoolers was way out of my comfort zone, I accepted an invitation to pair up with another teacher and join the competition. Finding a Justin Bieber costume wasn’t easy and All I Want for Christmas is You was an awkward song to sing with another teacher but, in the end, we had fun with it. More importantly though, for those few moments on stage, I stepped into a different role and showed the students a different side of myself. Instead of being the “talking head” giving instructions in the classroom, I was the awkward, tall guy at the front doing my best pop-star impersonation and Fortnite, victory dances (which were terrible).

Ice skating was another grade-wide, Christmas activity that provides a unique opportunity to build relationships with students. Skating circles around an oval sheet of ice provides the perfect setting to talk with students about a variety of non-school topics. While it is still my responsibility to supervise everyone on the rink, it also provides a great space to throw some snow and have some fun with them–things that you may rarely get the chance to do in the classroom.

Rather than subjecting the students to another holiday movie, one of my teaching partners suggested that we have a class-verse-class dodgeball game. One unique part about this dodgeball duel was that both teachers jumped into the game as players. Because I don’t teach P.E. regularly, this was a rare opportunity to be on the same team as my students. Even though my class lost the game, we had a great time together and this shared experience bonded us together in a way that regular classroom interactions fail to do.

Sharing Your Experiences

I’m curious to know how other teachers create spaces to build relationships with their students as a fellow human being. I would love to read your thoughts or experiences in the comments below.

No Friends in the Factory

Sometimes “eureka moments” come in that strangest places.  Two days ago, one unexpectedly arrived at a student-led conference.  The format of the conferences was slightly adjusted from the year previous.  After the students were finished explaining three areas of learning, three goals would be set. The student, parents and teacher would all set one goal based on their reflections on the term.

Having parents involved in goals-setting paid off in ways that I didn’t anticipate. In one particular conference, a parent hesitated before setting a goal for her son (let’s call him Jack).  She reluctantly added that she could only think of two areas that didn’t really relate to school.  I urged her on by telling her that it didn’t matter if they were school specific.  Her first goal was about Jack living peacefully with his younger sister.  He was always bickering with her and he needed to show more maturity and patience.  The second, suggested better eating and sleeping patterns for next term.  Jack was frequently staying up late and eating too much junk food before bedtime.  This was causing morning grogginess and making him miss breakfast on school days. 

Before the conferences, I had written out my report card comments for each of the students but hadn’t yet published them for the parents to see.  Jack’s comment communicated two areas for improvement that paralleled the two areas his mother brought up.  One was attentiveness during class, I mentioned that he seemed tired and his lack of attentiveness regularly left him confused about instructions in class. The other was constant bickering and joking with other students that distracted him during independent work times.  What first seemed like unrelated behaviours in different contexts were actually linked.  Relational patterns at home mimicked those at school and bad sleep habits at home minimized his focus during class.    

My “Ah ha” moment in this situation wasn’t the link between home and school.  Every teacher repeatedly observes direct links between the home and classroom as they get to know their students.  The surprise was how often views of education in our society exclude or minimize social and emotional learning.  Why do we compartmentalize social and emotional learning and pretend that it is a non-academic skill that doesn’t influence academic areas? 

Schools modelled on factories

Ken Robinson elegantly explains one answer in his TED Talk called, Changing Educational Paradigms. 

 He shows how our current system of education was modelled on the interests and in the image of industrialism. The result is that schools today are still organized along factory lines.  Examples of the factory influences that persist in school are ringing bells, grouping children into batches based on their “manufacturing date,” separating curriculum into separate subjects and standardized testing.  

Further, Robinson argues that the current educational system is also structured on an enlightenment view of the intelligence.  Knowledge of the classics and deductive reasoning were the primary marks of an intelligence in this period.  The educational system was built for compliance to this narrowly defined type of intelligence.  Consequently, the western world was split into two types of people, the academic and non-academic.  As it turned out, most people, who didn’t happen to be good at those few valued skills were ostracized by the system.   

Factory thinking persists

Robinson’s explanation, of what I’ll call, factory education and intelligence, continue to be very deeply embedded in how we think about education.  I think it is one of the reasons that we minimized social and emotional learning (SEL) in our schools.  Examples of this are everywhere in my teaching experience.  Over the last few years, our Middle School has developed house teams across our school to build relationships between students from grades 6-8.  Every student, teacher and educational assistant in the school is divided into four houses team. Each is associated with a colour and an animal–almost like the house system in Harry Potter.  A couple of times throughout the year, we have full days of school that are dedicated to house activities.  These are jam-packed, fun days, full of activities that help students forge relationships with one another.  The response of the school community to this initiative was mixed. Some students fully embraced the day–turning up in the team colours–excited for a day of competition.  Others decided to stay home because we weren’t doing any “work” at school.  The message from the latter group of students seemed clear, building relationships with students wasn’t what school was for.  School was exclusively for “academics.”

The factory view of intelligence also explains why many parents in our school communities wrongly diagnosis their children’s learning struggles.  For example, take the parent who sees their child’s difficulty with math skills and automatically concludes that enrolling them in Kumon is the solution. Kumon may help their student, and I certainly think this program does occasionally help children learn.  However, linear connections between lack of academic skill and additional practice questions often misses the true problem because of a dumbed-down view of human intelligence.  In this type of scenario, considering SEL type questions is just as important, if not more important, than considering the skills themselves.  For example, a parent in this situation might ask:

  • What are my child’s beliefs about math? Does he/she think they are good or poor at math? Why? Are their experiences or people that are perpetuating these beliefs?
  • What is my child’s level of confidence in math?  How could I boost this confidence level?
  • Does my child understand the purpose of learning this particular skill math?
  • Would it be more motivating to try this skill in a real situation?

Education for the head and heart

These kinds of social and emotional realities have a huge effect on student learning and academic performance.  The research to support these connections is well documented. Students who are more self-aware and confident about their learning capacities try harder and persist in the face of challenges (Aronson, 2002; cited in Durlak et al., 2011; Dweck, Walton, & Cohen, 2014).   According to a 2011 meta-analysis of 213 studies involving more than 270,000 students, those who participated in evidence-based SEL programs showed an 11 percentile-point gain in academic achievement compared to students who did not participate in SEL programs.  

UBC professor, Kimberly Schonert-Reichl who is a leading expert on SEL, also makes a connection between academic performance and the implementation of social and emotional learning programs in schools. 

In the video above, Schonert-Reichl also references the CASEL organization who have documented similar studies.  Another helpful place to reference SEL research on this point is Vanessa Vega’s article for Edutopia updated with the current research in June 2017.  Her summary of the current research makes Schonert-Reichl’s same point.  Human intelligence involves the whole person-including their emotional life, beliefs, and past experiences.  

That is not to say that academic achieve legitimizes SEL programs.  The development of SEL dispositions and competencies are connected to a greater vision of human flourishing that stands on their own merits. However, showing that SEL development influences academic performance proves that our enlightenment views of intelligence are too simplistic.  When education ignores the heart of the learners to focus on their heads both suffer.   No friendships in “the factory,” means less learning. 

To move our school culture away from the factory model, we need a new paradigm to think about learning.  We also need a different metaphor for thinking about schools and how we define intelligence.  Robinson gives us an alternative picture in his TED talk called, How to Escape Death Valley.  He reminds us that “…education is not a mechanical system, it is a human system. It’s about people.”  Robinson suggests that we should think about schools as organic, living environments that need to be nurtured.  At about 16:25, in the video below, Robinson compares schools to a dormant garden that need to be tended and nurtured in order to grow.  This metaphor is infused with incredible hope for the future. As teachers tend and care for their students, they will flourish.    

I would like to encourage you to take a few minutes to listen to Robinson’s whole talk.  It’s one of my personal favourites. I would also love to read any of your thoughts on these ideas in the comments below.