Whose empathy — theirs or mine?

One of the more important questions — especially in light of current social upheavals in our nation today — being asked about classroom management involves what one writer has called “The Most Important Back-to-School Supply.” In 2014, Edutopia carried a blog post by Homa Tavangar in which she wrote, “My most important back-to-school supply doesn’t fit in a backpack, and it can’t be ordered online. It’s as essential as a pencil, but unlike a pencil, no technology can replace it. In a sense, like a fresh box of crayons, it can come in many colors. Better than the latest gadget, it’s possible to equip every student with it, and even better, when we do, it can transform our world.”

Most of the time, when teachers speak of empathy, we are noting the lack of this important quality in the lives of our children and we are trying desperately to find a way to instill it in their minds as one of several “soft skills” that have the potential to make them much better human beings. Perhaps we should be equally — or even more — concerned about modeling it in front of them and allowing our students to see it lived out in the relationships that we build with them.

To make this happen, two things are vitally necessary. First of all, we have to understslide1and just how much most of our students need us to be empathetic.  Secondly, we must come to terms with the fact that our empathy may just have a dramatic effect on the very academic outcomes we are often under so much pressure to produce.

Allow me to speak to the latter necessity first. Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future (2006) wrote about Jefferson Medical School in Philadelphia (p. 52) developing an empathy index and a tool with which to measure physician effectiveness. The data produced by that tool reshaped how doctors are trained all over the world, and it pointed to a direct connection between empathy on the part of the physician as perceived by patients, and their overall well-being. It is not too far a leap (although I have not yet been able to find any clear data to back this up) to imagine a similar connection between the empathy experienced by out students and their overall success and well-being in the classroom.

Sugata Mitra, professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University in England, as early as 2010, coined the phrase “granny cloud” to describe how he enlisted more than 200 British grandmothers to serve as encouragers to struggling students. The result that he described was more than amazing as these women did little more than love on students — many times over the Internet via Skype — and praise their work and effort. He offers that there is a direct link between a student’s ability to self-learn and his emotional well-being.

Now, that being said, let me deal with the first necessity in our understanding of deploying empathy in the classroom.

One of the most rapidly growing subgroups that we as teachers deal with in our classrooms is the emotionally disturbed or ED students. The roots of this disorder might be found in a wide variety of sources ranging from domestic violence, bullying, physiological factors, sexual or other forms of physical abuse, but the students we deal with daily are coming to use in greater pain and more angry than ever before. They are building wider and wider learning gaps because their ED prevents them from learning at the same rate as non-ED students. Our students — and no age group is immune — are hurting and it is keeping them from learning. Perhaps more than  any other time in history our students need teachers who have the capacity to, as Pink puts it, “stand in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place. ” If Mitra is correct — and the data would seem to support it — even our best, brightest and emotionally healthiest students will benefit as well.

It is simply imperative that we stop trying to teach empathy and start living it in front of and direct it fully at the students who walk through our doorways every morning. As much as we have to do every day — and God knows we get busier every day — it is more important to every outcome we say we hope to achieve that we get better at being instead of better at doing.  After all, we are created not as human doings — but human beings. When we really value our students they way they are and for whom they are and not so much for what they do in our classrooms, empathy becomes much more possible and more effective.


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