Gimme an ‘E’ for Empathy

This past May, on the last day of school, one of my 8th grade students came to me and said “Mrs. Harris, I made this for you,” as she handed me a large, wooden letter E hand-painted and carefully embellished with glitter (mind you, I wouldn’t expect anything less than glitter from this one). 

“It’s for the ‘E’ word, you know, for empathy,” she said. 

I did know, and I was so moved that I cried.

Actually, I do usually cry when kids give me gifts, but this one was different. On this day, I received one of the most meaningful gifts that a student has ever given to me. One craft store, wooden letter covered in acrylic paint revealed the power of our daily classroom lessons about what it means to share the feelings of another or, as we put it, to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. This student (as did so many others in my classes) got the message that empathy is a highly important skill, so much so that she commemorated the word with this one symbolic letter–a letter which will hang in my classroom from now until the day I walk out of it for the last time. 

Why Teach Empathy?

This fall, I will not return to my 8th grade middle school classroom, but instead, I  will begin teaching high school once again. I absolutely love teaching high school and have missed it over the years, but with the excitement in returning, also comes a bit of anxiety. Those of us who teach (or who have taught) high school students know that they are no longer the gullible, easily influenced young minds they once were. Many are on the road to becoming realists, some of them already are, and they no longer accept the idea that the world is a place that can be easily changed by their individual nor their collective actions. They have become more dogmatic and opinionated, and swaying them is no easy task. In high school, teachers must bring their A-game if they want to get at the hearts of the young adults who fill the seats of their classrooms each day. And now more than ever, in this turbulent political era where the media is abundant with adults treating one another with disrespect and demonstrating zero understanding or compassion, the job of educators has become increasingly difficult when it comes to helping older students understand the importance of empathy. But despite this difficulty, we have to commit to it, nonetheless. 

Asking why we need to teach kids to be empathetic may sound like a silly question, but take a look at today’s society. There’s so much going on, so many problems, yet many seem to turn a blind eye to issues they feel don’t affect them. So why then should we encourage kids to show empathy when no one else seems to be doing it? If making the world a better place isn’t a good enough reason, then how about sharing with kids the fact that the ability to show empathy is an important skill that will have a profound impact on their success in life, specifically as it relates to working with others. According to Global Vision International, possessing empathy skills makes us better at not just understanding others, but also understanding the impact that we ourselves have on people. Whether our students plan to be teachers, doctors, CEOs, or visionaries, they need to know how they affect those who surround them, in addition to appreciating their  perspectives. Knowing how to display empathy allows individuals to more easily motivate and convince others with whom they work or employ. And, if that’s still not enough, empathy makes us overall kinder, happier, healthier people, and who doesn’t want to be those things! Don’t believe me? Just ask the Dalai Lama who says, “The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather walk around happy and helping others than angry at the world and doing nothing to change it. That’s what I want my students to want, too. 

Getting Kids To Understand

As an English teacher, I have to ask myself how I will reach these young people who might not have even heard the word empathy before they made their way into my classroom? What will I do? Well, for starters, just as I always have, I will build connections to empathy into every lesson I plan. This includes three every-day actions that will ensure students leave my classroom with the word empathy emblazoned on their hearts.

1. I will show empathy in every way, every day. We all know the best way to teach something is to model it. One of the first things we learn in our entry-level teaching courses is the gradual release method of teaching: I do. We do. You do. This same principal applies to teaching students empathy. Let them see you doing it. You are a teacher and the number one requirement of your job is the need to show empathy. Whether it’s openly supporting a student whose views may be different from the rest of the class or  making appropriate, personal connections with your students, building trust with all of your students and showing them you care is one sure way to foster in them the same sense of empathy you display every single day. If you need more help with this, check out Wabisabi Learning’s article The Best Ways of Becoming a More Empathetic Teacher.

2. We will talk about empathy, every day. When discussing, reading, and writing about literature and nonfiction, we will explore the ways in which our characters and subjects demonstrate empathy and how things might have been different if they had or had not done so. When talking about students’ personal lives, as a group or individually, I will include the opportunity to discuss how empathy, or the lack thereof, played a role. When we prepare for instruction, collaboration, and discussion, we will talk about how others’ perspectives and feelings come into play and affect learning, and what we will do to foster the kind of environment that allows us to learn from each other because of our differing perspectives. 

3. Students will have the chance to practice empathy, every day. Collaboration is a vital element to fostering a learning environment that generates successful students; however, we all know students (and adults) hate collaboration, right? Why is that? Because it’s difficult. It’s difficult for young people because they fear putting themselves “out there” when working with others, or feeling embarrassed about what they know or don’t know. Empathy is the key to making collaboration easier by putting students to work in an environment where they are not afraid to be themselves. Once you have provided students with the understanding of the importance of empathy, watch collaboration take off. Students won’t fear talking in front of their peers for fear of persecution by them. Allow students regular opportunities to speak openly in a classroom where they know they will be respected, and watch them grow as learners. Every single day allow students an outlet to express themselves in ways others will value. Let them think about, talk about, and write about the impact others have had on them. Pretty soon, they will be the “modelers” teaching others outside your classroom what it means to be empathetic.

Giving Them the Greatest Gift

When I taught middle school, by the end of their 8th grade year, every student in my classroom could identify and display characteristics of empathy. They knew what it meant, in every sense of the word. They recognized it when they saw it, and they knew how to show it. Over the course of a year, they became more aware, more thoughtful, more compassionate, more impactful, and I think, happier. This is the same thing I wish for my future high school students. I know it’s going to be tough, because as adults we know that the older we get, it’s sometimes less easy to be as empathetic as we once were. But this is no excuse, and the fact is, we can never settle for less than what is best for our students. Teaching them to embrace the ‘E’ word is the best gift we could ever give to our students, and that is exactly what I plan to do. 

How about you? How do you plan to teach your students empathy in the coming school year? I look forward to hearing about your ideas!

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive”

~ Dalai Lama

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