Opinion
Student Well-Being Opinion

Sparking Empathy: I Used to Think ... But Now I Know ...

April 23, 2019 4 min read

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.


My Empatico partner teacher and I were excited to do our “classroom reveals,” where our students would follow clues to discover where our new class buddies live. My partner teacher in Memphis gave her class tiny cacti and rebus clues to find we live in Surprise, Arizona. I gave my class geographic and musical clues to learn they live in Memphis, Tennesee.

Anticipation built as we connected for the first time online. We enjoyed asking each other questions like what kind of music we like (hip-hop, pop, and country), what sports we enjoy (a lot of football lovers, especially, and oddly an abundance of Cowboys fans in both classes), how we get to school (drive, walk, and ride bikes), etc. The highlight of our first interaction was Kianna, in Tennessee, leading both classes in singing “Happy Birthday” to my Kihanna, in Arizona! Sweet, shy Kihanna bloomed, and it was a very special moment for all of us.

After our connection, my class reflected, using the sentence stem I used to think ... but now I know. ... We had some great reflections about the similarities and differences found in our geographical and school settings.


  • “I used to think they’d have accents, but now I know they sound just like us.”


  • “I used to think all kids were the same, but now I’m learning we all share some similarities and differences.”


  • “I used to think this was weird, but now I know this is fun.”

Some reflections went deep.


  • “I used to think I didn’t have much in common, but now I know I have much more in common than I think.”


  • “I used to think communication was just talking, but now I know it’s listening, thinking, looking, and caring.”


  • “I used to think that different people should not be friends, but now I know it does not matter.

When my partner teacher and I debriefed and reflected on our lesson and exchange, I learned that our partner class watched videos of our beautiful city of Surprise as part of their reveal. I was shocked to learn that the videos did not reflect my student population at all! The students in Memphis were expecting a mostly white class population based on videos of the city. They were surprised to see the diversity in my classroom when they “met” for the first time.

I used to think my city’s publications reflected my students but now I know they don’t. I also knew I needed to do something about it.

Thanks to Empatico skills lessons, we had been practicing respectful communication in class. So, we invited the mayor of our city to visit our classroom and respectfully informed him of what we’d learned about perceptions of our city. He also expressed shock at the false perception of our city via the videos. We vowed to do something about it together and now we are working with the city’s communications director.

My students had the opportunity to connect in a powerful way with students from a different part of the county. Not only did they shatter some of their misconceptions but they also created an opportunity to use their new skills to engage with community leaders and impact social change.

We’ve interacted with our partner class several more times and found so many things in common: We both use mindfulness in our classes, some of our students believe in UFOs, and many of us love barbeque. I used to think ... sparking empathy meant creating kindness and caring ... but now I know it can mean bringing awareness and making a difference.

What strategies do you use to challenge student misconceptions? Do you provide opportunities for your students to engage with community leaders? Share your experiences in the comments.

Beth Maloney is in her 19th year of teaching and enjoys every minute of her time in her fifth grade classroom in Surprise, Arizona. Beth is a national-board-certified teacher, past-president and co-founder of the Arizona National Board Certified Teachers Network, and a candidate support provider for the Arizona K12 Center, where she coaches and mentors other teachers undergoing the rigorous national-board certification. She is a member of the Arizona TeacherSolutions® Team, a Teacher Champion Fellow, an Empatico Empathy Challenge Fellow, a doctoral candidate, and a blogger for the Stories from School Arizona website. She is honored to be Arizona’s 2014 teacher of the year.

Photo Credits: Beth Maloney

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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.

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