Design a site like this with
Get started

Empathy in Education

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In 1992, James Carville, Democratic Strategist for Bill Clinton’s Presidential Campaign famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” The quote hit a nerve because of the magnitude of the impact of our national economy on the presidential landscape.  Like a singularity, it held all the political mass and energy. Empathy is equally massive and significant in the educational landscape. For years, I believed that the students who walked through my door were predetermined for success and failure and that my job was to deliver content. As long as I did my job conveying concepts via PowerPoint and testing it via Scantron, I was doing my job.  The student was simply the student…a receiver and retriever of biological content. Then we went through a transformation in my district.  We started asking harder questions about the meaning of education. We began looking at curriculum and integrating real world problem solving, 21st century skills, and meaningful context. We began to see the importance of team-based problem solving that makes a difference. And we began to see our students…really see them…as people…as learners. That’s when it hit me.  “It’s the empathy, stupid.”  I’m not calling you “stupid”…or me for that matter. I’m simply realizing that the singular importance of empathy for my students in my classes has tremendous educational gravity. They are changed by empathy. Their learning potential is affected by empathy. Their effort is transformed by empathy. When they walk into my classroom and feel cared for, their learning trajectory for the day is altered. They want to succeed. They want to feel safe. They want to make contributions to class that are valued. They want meaningful relationships that last beyond the bell.  They want to stay. Over the past few years, I’ve had several students with severe behavioral accommodations join my class as part of an inclusion model. At first, I made it all about compliance.  “If they are coming in here, they better know what my expectations are…” And as long as compliance ruled, the outcome was sadly predictable. They would cross one of my lines and I’d ask them to leave. But then I was confronted with “It’s the empathy.” Again. And I asked myself, what if I made it about collaboration rather than compliance. What if I asked them what would make them feel safer, more comfortable?  What if I let them sit wherever they liked? What if I let them take out the bearded dragon or geckos at the beginning of class to calm their nerves? What if I made the relationship with them unique, like a teacher’s assistant? What if? What if we figured it out together. That is true collaboration.  And as soon as I began to build my accommodations on collaboration rather than compliance, I saw transformed students and relationships.  I saw students struggling with severe behavioral disabilities begin to feel comfortable and valued. I saw them engage in healthy educational and personal interactions. I even began to see them take the lead in small groups as they felt confident and safe.  “It’s the empathy.” And so, I’d recommend that any and every teacher take a second look at your kids today. How are they feeling? What are they going through? What trauma has impacted them? Do they feel safe? Do they feel valued? Do they know you care? That you see them? That you know them? Do they see the importance in what they’re learning? Do they understand the “Why” of what you’re teaching? Empathy and context go hand in hand. When you begin by understanding your kids (empathy), you can then help them understand their world (context). “It’s the empathy.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: