Vignette # 7
A group of K-12 educators gathers together to examine how developing greater empathy among students in the classroom can help their students better respect and understand each other’s differences. In the process, a teacher discovers that a genuine study of empathy must include an exploration of her own abilities to empathize with both her colleagues and the population she teaches.
When middle school science teacher Lindsey Stein joins a summer professional development workshop day on “Building Empathy in the Classroom,” sponsored for her K-12 suburban district, she is eager to hear if teachers across grade levels are dealing with the same growing disrespect among students that she feels often plagues her classroom. Frustrated with her students’ seeming lack of tolerance for each other’s different learning styles and pace of work, Lindsey hopes to find camaraderie and strategies to create a more harmonious learning environment in her classroom. By already realizing that her students will learn better if they feel understood, respected and more connected to each other, Lindsey is open to figuring out how to make this happen for the spread of skills/interests in her classes. Lindsey is fascinated by the range of perspectives and ideas that fill the workshop: a first grade teacher who talks about the role plays she supports in her classroom, where students get to act out social conflicts (that they have supplied) while the “audience” helps with advice, a high school English teacher who uses historical literature and current articles about people on “the margin” in order to inspire dialogue and understanding about differences among people, and a drama teacher who teaches empathetic thinking by inspiring his students to truly understand how someone different from them thinks, acts, and feels. While the ideas are exciting, Lindsey wonders what she can “take away” in order to help her classroom collective become a place where all of her students feel affirmed and respected.
While envious of the seemingly “easy access” to “empathy material” for the elementary and literature based classroom, Lindsey is inspired by a group break-out session that challenges the teachers across grades and subject matter to come up with a “walk in another person’s shoes” content lesson idea that would inspire students to think beyond themselves. In addition to coming up with a new idea of having students examine the hardships/challenges that accompany worldwide populations that don’t have easy access to clean drinking water during their study of water and natural resources, Lindsey also considers ideas to help her students gain skills for understanding and respecting their own learning styles and those of others. She loves the idea that a colleague shares about students identifying their own strengths and weaknesses, and then having them create “jobs” during class/project work that allow them opportunities to “show off their strengths and strengthen their weaknesses.” By acknowledging and honoring that “all kids are working on something,” Lindsey thinks that her students could learn to be more accepting and mindful of the different styles of learning that they bring to the table.
This theme of self-awareness and action continues into the afternoon session where Lindsey and her colleagues are challenged to examine their own abilities to empathize – with themselves, their students, and their colleagues. It proves an eye-opening and humbling experience for many of the participants, especially as they reflect upon the challenges they face within their own departments and schools. Lindsey shares her own growing frustration with fellow members of her Science department, as she longs for greater consistency in their approach to students. Claiming that she is open to learning from her colleagues, Lindsey does admit that she often feels that she is “right” and can be quietly judgmental of different teaching styles. Challenged to put herself in “their shoes,” Lindsey gets the opportunity to experience the “stepping back” moment that she expects of her students – a chance to acknowledge and learn from different perspectives. Asked to consider shifting the view of her colleagues and students to a lens of patience and curiosity, Lindsey begins to see things differently, and perhaps more clearly. Anticipating a new approach to teaching/learning and everyday moments of school interactions, Lindsey leaves the workshop with a commitment to better model the empathetic approach to people/ideas that she hopes to foster among her students.
- Developing Empathy – This excellent resource from Teaching Tolerance provides guidance and resources for helping to develop empathy across grade levels, largely through the concept of teaching students to be able to put themselves in “someone else’s shoes.” For early grades through high school, the link provides age appropriate class objectives, essential questions, materials, and activities for teachers to explore in the classroom.
- In this short article, “Teaching Empathy in the Pre-K-20 Classroom,” the author looks to great teachers and leaders to put together a list of texts that they think will help build empathy among students.
- Empathy in the Classroom – This website is dedicated to the teaching of empathy, particularly in schools. It defines empathy, highlights why teaching it is so important, offers possible lessons to use in the classroom, and offers connections to various links and articles about developing empathy. It also provides a space for discussion and sharing of resources.
- Building Social and Emotional Skills in Elementary Students: Empathy – This Edutopia blog post offers ten brief but compelling ways that empathy is being developed in schools: from creating space for teachers to experience more empathetic working environments so that they can better teach empathy, to projects that guide students to become “change-makers” in their schools.
- Building Empathy for a “Trouble-Maker” – This short and interesting article from Responsive Classroom outlines one 5th/6th grade teacher’s experience trying to build empathy within her classroom for a student known as a troublemaker. In order to successfully include this student in the classroom community, the teacher realizes that she must come up with strategies to help her students (and herself) develop empathy and understanding.
- Get Into Character: Develop Empathy Through Drama – This nine-minute video clip shows a high school drama class where students are asked to “walk in the shoes of a senior citizen.” By taking his students through the process of understanding the physical and mental realities of a life so different from their own, the teacher provides a powerful empathy building experience for his students.