Curriculum Opinion

A Call for Empathetic Schools

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 04, 2013 4 min read
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Empathy is really the opposite of spiritual meanness. It’s the capacity to understand that every war is both won and lost. And that someone else’s pain is as meaningful as your own.” - Barbara Kingsolver

We keep circling different doorways into the complex problems plaguing our schools. Each doorway has been given a name: common core standards, new assessments, new performance evaluation systems, declining resources, length of year, safety, technology, charter schools, and on and on. All have merit as entry points to the complexity. The mandates that come ‘from away’ are difficult to fit into our work and present the unprecedented challenges we lived with this past year. As challenges rise, morale has declined. There are many anecdotal stories about how hard the end of the year was. School leaders are now sharing the stories of those last few days of the school year and the attention with which they sent teachers off to the summer. Those stories conjure up the empathy these leaders revealed.

More than ever, empathy between leaders and teachers was present this past year, at least in many schools and districts. It helped us cope with challenges and manuver through the toughest of times, with dignity, and while attempting to preserve morale.

Empathy does not mean sympathy. Empathy is the actual understanding of how another feels - the capacity to be able to walk in another’s shoes. Sympathy is the ability to acknowledge another person’s feeling while providing comfort and assurance. Both are important attributes. Empathy is less self centered and more relational.

If we as a culture, as families, as school systems and as schools, as teachers, and leaders, taught empathy - would we require legislation against bullying? Would we need guns to protect ourselves from one another? Could we put ourselves into the role of illegal immigrant and worn out citizen simultaneously? Would wrath define our exchanges or respectful dialogue? Would we be watching our legislatures dissolve into dysfunction, forgetting the common good and battling over personal beliefs? The nature of compromise, a principle upon which our founding fathers acted, is that beneath it all, there is common good.

The adults who stall legislation, create laws and mandates that are unbearable, and create reality TV, show us beauty pageants for 2 year olds, embarrass people, make us laugh at how other people live were once our students. If the “mainstream media” is a problem, what about news on MSN? What do we care about as adults in this culture? We think about how we were instrumental in producing this culture.

If we just consider how we taught American history, we get an example. We taught the history of the United States without questioning the Manifest Destiny that gave us permission to march across a continent taking the land from those who lived on it, seeing them as less entitled than we. There were school trips, to a monument in St. Louis that celebrates that trek across the continent and to The Museum of the Westward Expansion where we tell the story of the American Indians and the 19th century pioneers who helped “shape the American West.” We did not teach about arrogance or greed. We taught about the attack on Pearl Harbor. But, did we ask them to wrestle with the internment camps for Japanese Americans and their loss of homes and freedom? We taught about Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the only way to end the Second World War without an examination of the consequences for the Japanese citizens, children and adults whose lives were forever changed by our action.

There are talented teachers who do extraordinary work to help their students understand history from multiple perspectives. However, we have a systemic need to see beyond the immediate and the vested. Our systems need to support and join their work. As a people, we need to make and support very hard decisions while not losing our humanity. That calls for empathy.

Our students can grow into adults who can bring something different to our legislatures, our businesses, our classrooms and families. The teaching of empathy is something we model. It is a consideration to be made in everything we do. The adults in a school have different roles but one purpose. Empathy arises from that understanding. Our success calls for interdependency. It is the same for students. The way we speak to students about their behavior, the way we speak and work with their parents, the way we write our handbooks and our behavioral expectations, the words we use and the thoughts we share, all contribute to lessons in empathy or the lack of it.

The Internet gives us a tool in which to see other points of view. With a search ending with ".uk” for example, you are immediately transported into a world viewed from the perspective of the British - and find their version of the Revolutionary War or as it is referred to there, The American War of Independence. This technology provides us a dynamic method for providing different perspectives that otherwise were not as easily accessible. This change in how we think about how our curriculum is designed can be systemically profound. In order to accomplish this, we must touch every person in our schools. All of our thinking and actions will be affected. It is a huge undertaking, but one that is important to consider. It is a change, not ‘from away’ but one from within. It is a change that seems logical, and it rests in the hearts of educators. It fights no mandate. It invites no legislation. And if we do it, maybe our next generation will have received the education they need in order to create a better world.


See what Ann and Jill recommend for reading this summer at their BookMarks post.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.