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Building Empathy in Classrooms and Schools

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Empathy is a complex concept and a difficult skill. It’s time for educators to recognize the strength it takes to create, balance, and sustain an empathic mindset in a culture that doesn’t always value it.

Empathy in education is often deemed a “soft skill.” Sometimes we equate empathy to coddling, weakness, or even label it as a gender-specific trait. It is none of these things. We’re neither born with it, predisposed to it, or incapable of it. Empathy doesn’t happen because we do a few icebreakers in the beginning of the school year.

As educators, many of us begin each school year by celebrating individuals’ uniqueness, striving to understand differences, and setting goals for embracing the cultures of all learners. Then, the academic rush starts. Lesson plans are due. Grades pile up. Parent conferences begin. Student behavior disrupts our lessons and strains our patience. IEP, PLC, and faculty meetings fill our calendars.

With a full plate every day, what do we often dismiss first? Empathy—for our students, our colleagues, and ourselves. But without empathy, we cannot understand the diverse students and communities we serve. That lack of understanding may limit our focus to generalizations and assumptions. A mindset without intentional empathy narrows focus, and prevents us from accurately identifying the barriers to learning for our students. In turn, students come to be viewed as academic producers rather than social-emotional beings.

Content knowledge and concrete skills can be assessed with answer keys and rubrics, yet empathy can be difficult to measure. Despite all of this, empathy should and must remain a priority in our classrooms and in our schools, even if additional programs and initiatives are secondary or eliminated.

So what does empathy in a classroom look like? And how can teachers cultivate it? Here are some ideas.

Modeling Empathy: It’s Difficult, But Essential

Teachers’ own behaviors and actions are the culture and the climate control in the room once the bell rings. This means if we treat students as respected co-learners, we are modeling our belief about how all people should be treated. If, or when, that modeling is not reciprocated by a student, that’s a second opportunity for us to model and reaffirm a positive, empathic response for all students. The more often we remain consistent in our pro-actions and reactions, the more times we are reaffirming to our students ‘this is who I am.’ This creates the accepting atmosphere that embraces all our learners, regardless of the baggage they (or we) bring in each day.

When a student seems upset, teachers should take the time, no matter how inconvenient, to demonstrate empathy by making eye contact, taking the student aside to speak privately, and maintaining respect in words and actions during conversation. In working with a student who is in an emotional state, we should remember that as adults, we usually have the coping mechanisms and experience to recognize and handle these emotions. Students may not, and we cannot expect that from them unless we expressly teach them these strategies.

Sustaining this mindset can be difficult. Teachers pour hours into creative lessons and activities; it is hard to not take it personally when a student behaves rudely or disrupts a lesson or activity. However, educators’ empathic responses need to be as intentional as lesson-planning time, not as impulsive as student behavior. When a student is upset, disengaged, or reactive, we as teachers should remember that he or she may now be battling a similar internal strife as we once endured as younger students. The response we would have wanted when we were in this emotional place is the same one we should embody to students.

That response will look different depending on student age, student-teacher comfort level, specific knowledge of student need, and the level and type of disruption. However, in every case, an empathic response does NOT seek to embarrass, belittle, or punish the student. Instead, an empathic response seeks to protect the learning environment at all times for all students, and address the disruption with attention to the context and the emotions of individual students.

Owning our mistakes publicly, especially the more educationally embarrassing ones, demonstrates to students that it’s OK for them to take risks, too. When we call attention to, or are corrected by a student for a spelling mistake or other careless error, how we respond sets the tone for the empathic culture we’re trying to create. Defusing with humor and humility reminds students that empathy also means accepting yourself, flaws and all.

Putting Empathy in the Curriculum

Take a poll in your classroom tomorrow: How many students can define “empathy?” How many can provide an example of empathy? You may be surprised by the lack of knowledge students have about empathy as an idea, a skill, or a mindset. If educators believe empathy is important, we need to find ways to explicitly discuss it with students. In the pressure-cooker of curriculum maps, testing regimes, and pacing guides, adding one more thing can feel overwhelming. To diffuse that feeling, here are a few ways empathy can pair with and deepen lessons or skills teachers already teach in the classroom:

  • Language Arts: Define empathy as a class. Then ask students to identify characters in stories, novels, or plays that demonstrated empathy or could be described as empathic. Compare and contrast empathic levels across characters or thematic units.
  • STEM classes: Introduce the design-thinking model for approaching a problem. Ask students to identify the “user” of the problem or product. Then, ask them to empathize with that user by identifying their thoughts, feelings, values, and worries. (See this resource and this one for a start!)
  • Public Speaking: Any time you require a presentation, ask students to spend time empathizing with their audience. Who are they? What interests them? Then, ask students to use their skill of empathizing with the audience as they strategize the presentation, and develop the introductory hook to connect the topic to the audience.
  • Behavior Management: When introducing behavioral expectations to students at the beginning of the year, define empathy and ask students to role-play different scenarios that can occur in the classroom. Ask them to brainstorm how empathy could change or shape those hypothetical scenarios to sustain a culture of caring, respect, and significance in the classroom.

Take Action, Be Intentional

The ultimate goal is to create the atmosphere that enables teachers to meet the needs of all students. If teachers don’t take time to know students, how can we expect to reach them? If a student comes in hungry or tired from a challenging day-to-day environment, he or she may not be in the best position to succeed. How we act and react will determine whether we reach that student and their peers who may need a safe space. If teachers create that environment and personify that culture, we will reduce the empathic mindset gap that currently exists between teachers and students.

To build an empathic mindset, here are a few concrete actions every teacher can take:

  • Read stories from the perspective of characters similar to your students. Ask your students to share their favorite literature, whether it aligns to the current curriculum, or not. This can remind teachers of the thoughts, perspectives, and worries influencing students every day. Middle and high school teachers: Read Young Adult literature. Elementary teachers: Read the books your students love from the classroom library. Be intentional about choosing diverse literature that reflects the diversity of your classroom.
  • Follow a student schedule for a day. Or, if administration isn’t supportive of this, simply ask a student to list all the assignments they’ve completed before arriving in your classroom and what his or her schedule looks like after school. We must keep in mind that this applies to all students. Students in 2nd grade can be overwhelmed just as readily as high school students. Read what one adult learned when she dared to take this challenge.
  • Survey students frequently. These surveys can use technology or not. Post-it notes and exit slips can be as informative as their digitized counterparts, Padlet and Google Forms. One of the most powerful questions a teacher can ask a student is this: “What’s one thing teachers should know about students?” or “What’s the most important thing I should know about you?” Either question can provide data to drive instruction with an empathic mindset. Whether we use high-tech or low-tech, other questions to survey students may include: What are your passions? What brings you anxiety in school? Whom do you admire? Teachers, keep these answers on file to reference when having a particularly trying time with students. Keep these answers private (unless the answers wander into mandated reporter territory), but reference them to help adopt a mindset of empathy for students. Here’s an example of a Google Forms survey for high school students at the beginning of the year.

Empathy Includes Our Adult Interactions

Students watch teachers constantly, and our actions can unintentionally model unempathetic behavior. An eye-roll after a fellow teacher makes a comment, or dismissing what a peer says in earshot of students models a mindset that lacks empathy. In doing so, teachers are tacitly demonstrating these behaviors as acceptable. If teachers don’t want students to make a face, roll their eyes, or respond sarcastically to a serious comment, then they must model how to respond differently when interacting with other adults.

By modeling the citizenship we want students to embody we can create the culture and climate that validates all, excludes none. This can be modeled by offering a solutions-based perspective, instead of joining in or validating complaints students have about other teachers. Ask students how they can think about the situation empathetically: “What do you think that teacher is trying to show you with that assignment? How could you approach him with a question that may provide your perspective, but also show you want to understand?”

In our educational roles, it is vitally important that we model how empathy has power to influence a variety of contexts and interactions. Investing in the well-being of both our students and our colleagues promotes a positive, empathic culture that makes classrooms and school a safe haven. If we want to make a lasting impact on our students and prepare them to for success in college, career, and citizenship, we must prioritize empathy as an essential mindset.

Image from Flickr user Eflon.

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