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.

A Teacher’s Shield of Perfectionism

I’ve never really thought of myself as a perfectionist, probably because I thought of perfectionism as synonymous with obsessive-compulsive patterns of behaviour.  I’m not the person who readjusts the picture in the room every time I walk into until “it fits.” I’m not the person who rearranges the books on my bookshelf until it “feels right,” therefore, I’m not a perfectionist.   That is the way I thought about it until this summer when two discoveries came together in an interesting way that changed my mind.

The first discovery was the realization that I didn’t know myself very well.  During the last few months, I’ve been reading Brad Lomenick’s book, H3 Leadership, where he underlines the importance of leaders knowing themselves.  Lomenick explains how knowing yourself helps you make important decisions, find areas you are passionate about and realize when you need support.  As I reflected on my own life, I realized that low levels of self-knowledge were holding me back from being an effective leader but I wasn’t sure why.  Was I not seeking feedback from those around me? Was I not taking enough time to reflect on my own passions, skill set, or areas of weakness? I wasn’t sure.

A few weeks later, I found myself listening to Brene Brown’s book, Daring Greatly.  In chapter four, she describes perfectionism as a shame-avoidance technique that blinds people to who they really are.  I instantly understood one of the primary reasons I didn’t know myself–I was attempting to escape feelings of shame through perfectionism.  

What is perfectionism?

According to Brene Brown, perfectionism is a negative mindset that keeps us from knowing who we really are.  In her book, she describes it as “a defensive move” focused on hustling for the approval of others.

Roman Shield

Perfectionism is a defensive move.  It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around, thinking it will protect us, when in fact it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from being seen.

How does it affect learning?

When I embrace perfectionism as a teacher it means that I take fewer risks in my learning.  I don’t create as much as I should because I’m too worried that my work won’t measure up to my colleagues or students in some way.  Sometimes it means, I don’t try new strategies or lesson ideas in my classroom because I don’t want the students to see one of my lessons flop.  Ironically, this would be the best way to model a growth mindset to them.  At other times, it means that I don’t ask other teachers for help because I want to be perceived as being omnicompetent. Putting up a perfectionist front, may also mean that I over-schedule myself and have no margin for relationships with others because I don’t want to disappoint people by saying no.   It could also mean that I want to appear to be an ultra multi-tasker that does hundreds of tasks per day “naturally” without much effort–while I’m really burning out.

What cures perfectionism?

Though I don’t expect any quick fixes to my own perfectionist tendencies, Brown does suggest a few helpful guidelines her book to counter the self-destructive and addictive nature of perfectionism.

  • Create. The creative process requires some level of vulnerability.  It requires that we open up the “cracks” in our armour and be who we really are.  Those cracks are the things that others can identify with and respond to.
  • Own your story.  Brown says that we really only have two choices when it comes to own story.  We can either own our stories (even the messy ones) or we stand outside them.  Standing outside them causes us to deny our vulnerabilities and imperfections and orphan the parts of us that don’t fit in with who /what we think we’re supposed to be.  It also causes us to hustle for other people’s approval of our worthiness.
  • Embrace our common humanity.  Recognizing that feelings of personal inadequacy, suffering, and failure are part of our shared common experiences helps us normalize these parts of our lives and embrace them.
  • Bust perfectionist myths.  Believing myths like, “The perfect life is really possible” and responding to failure with “It would have been perfect if I would have applied more time and energy” only makes perfectionism worse. Brown reminds us that perfection is more about perception than internal motivation, and perceptions cannot be controlled–no matter how much time, effort and money we apply.

A final cure to perfectionism connects to the theme of worthiness in Brown’s book.  She says that wholehearted people, that have the courage to be vulnerable are characterized by a deep sense of worthiness.

Gospel Worthiness

As a Christian, I think that the gospel has the power to help me own my story and give me the sense of worthiness that she describes.  The story of the gospel, written in the Bible, is that God has provided a covering for shame through the perfect life of Jesus.  In Revelations 3:16, the “white garments” that cover the shame of the perfectionists Jesus is speaking to, is “bought” from Jesus. The white garments Jesus refers to is a symbol of his perfect life that is imputed to believers through faith.  These garments are not earned by our perfect moral life.  They are morally perfect but they are supplied as a gift by an outside party.  However, those white clothes do give me the confidence of forgiveness and worthiness before God–even in the mist of failure and embarrassment.     

Questions for Reflection

Is perfectionism preventing you from knowing yourself?

Is perfectionism locking you in a fixed mindset that prevents your growth as an educator?

I would love to know if you can identify with my experience or see this at work in your own practice.  Please leave me a comment below.