Editor’s note (6/11/19): The National Network of State Teachers of the Year, the organization whose members write for the Teacher-Leader Voices blog, has a financial relationship with Empatico that was not disclosed prior to this post’s publishing. For more information, see this note to readers.
By Mike Soskil
Standing in a dirt school courtyard 7,500 miles from my students, I wept tears of joy.
In Kibera, Nairobi, the largest slum in Africa, children had just received water filters my students had worked to provide. Everyone on the group Skype call I had organized had tears in their eyes. Hundreds of Kenyan children around me hugged the filters that would keep their families safe from the cholera outbreak that had claimed twelve youngsters during my week working with teachers in the slum. As my students realized the magnitude of their impact through the eyes of a computer screen, I knew they would spend the rest of their lives finding ways to help others. This most influential moment of my 21-year teaching career solidified my conviction that empathy is the most important trait we can teach our students.
We live in interesting times. As our global society struggles to navigate problems brought about by fear and misunderstanding of those who are different, we have unprecedented access to tools that make connecting and learning with others easier than ever before. This is the great challenge we face as both educators and humans: As technology continues to advance rapidly with an increasing power to both divide and unite us, which course will we choose? The path we take—division or unity—will largely depend on the choices we make in our classrooms and education systems.
The key is to keep empathy, compassion and the best parts of humanity at the heart of our education system while still ensuring the learning in our schools reflects the technological realities outside them. This premise is the basis for Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice, a book I recently authored with five other Global Teacher Prize finalists. While each of us comes from disparate experiences in a wide array of teaching environments, we agree that regardless of how fast computer processors become, machines will never replace teachers. Teachers will always be more important than the technology used in schools. Though they can be helpful tools to help us make positive connections with others, machines will never be able to love students the way we do as teachers.
We spend a lot of time in schools measuring things that are easily quantified. We measure how accurately students complete math problems, how fast they read fluently, how many days they attend school, and so on. The most important qualities of learning that happens in schools, however, cannot be measured, and we need to spend more time focused on them. Both Forbes and Entrepreneur magazines have widely reported that the character trait that most closely correlates with success in life is empathy. Yet, we spend so little time explicitly focusing upon it in our schools.
That love and compassion that teachers show for the children in their care is the key to the bright and prosperous future we all desire. A positive relationship between a teacher and a student can serve as a model for the rest of that student’s life. Empathetic teachers foster empathetic students.
One of the best ways to build empathy and compassion in students is to give them experiences learning with others who come from very different backgrounds. These experiences, which usually involve free videoconferencing software like Skype, have given the students in my rural community the opportunity to meet children, teachers, scientists, authors, and others from over 90 countries. They have even had virtual field trips with scientists in Antarctica and astronauts on the International Space Station.
Global experiences allow me to encourage a culture in my classroom where differences are seen as opportunities for learning rather than reasons for fear. My students often look for ways to help the new friends they meet in some way. Perhaps more importantly, they have also learned to look for ways those in other places can provide something we need. This has led to incredible two-way service projects.
Lately I have had an opportunity to learn about Empatico, a new, free tool that is making these types of connections easier and more accessible than ever before. This initiative started by The KIND Foundation is designed to broaden kids’ worldviews through meaningful interactions with peers in the United States and across the globe. Through Empatico’s website, teachers choose a standards-based activity and indicate on a calendar dates and times that their students are available. The tool identifies other classrooms who are interested in the same activity at the same time and partners the teachers together. Then, the video calls connecting students for the activity are done right on the website. Right now Empatico is available in English for 8-10 year old students, but will be expanding in the future. Connecting classrooms to learn together and to build understanding has never been easier.
Tools like Empatico and Skype, when paired with teachers who are explicitly focused on giving students opportunities to experience the joy of appreciating those who come from different backgrounds are preparing our next generation for the global world they will inherit from us.
The future is uncertain. Our commitment in passing the best aspects of humanity to our children cannot be.
Michael Soskil, the 2017-2018 Pennsylvania State Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, is determined to make learning meaningful for every child and to empower others as positive change agents in their communities. He is a co-author of Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice. Soskil is also a recipient of the US Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, a two-time finalist for the Global Teacher Prize, and he was named one of the top 10 teachers in the world in 2016 by the Varkey Foundation. As an elementary science teacher in the Wallenpaupack Area School District, he inspires young scientists to use their curiosity and learning to make the world a better place.
The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.