Empathy (and Why We All Need Some)

Some of the best advice I ever received as a teacher is to make an honest effort to see things from my students’ point of view. This includes sitting in each chair when setting up the classroom to experience the feeling of the kid in that seat, going through the academic activities and assignments I planned to make sure they were engaging, and personally participating in our reading and writing workshops. I later realized, however, that I lacked a certain amount of empathy for my students. You see, I had a privileged childhood. I grew up in a warm, loving, two-parent home, had my own room, never missed a meal, attended private school, and never wanted for anything. In no way am I complaining about this; I am so grateful for my opportunities. But my upbringing did make it difficult for me to truly understand people whose world views, situations, and experiences were different than my own.

It wasn’t until I had a student, Scott (name changed for privacy), that I truly understood how lacking I was in the skill of empathizing. He was always angry, always more concerned with snack time and collecting school supplies than with learning. He could appear perfectly fine one minute then completely break down the next, without any visible trigger or reason. I got frustrated with him. I thought he acted out just because he wanted to; he was defiant, loved getting in power struggles with adults, and he was destructive. I was adamant that he was consciously making these choices and that he needed to take responsibility. Then, one afternoon, after a heated and emotional meeting about him with my administrators, I began to see him for who he was: a scared, lonely child with a low self-esteem, a 10 year old who was more concerned with getting his basic needs met than cooperating with his annoying teacher. His home life was unstable. His mother was sick. His brothers had various problems. He had been diagnosed with dyslexia and a learning disability. No wonder he used his reward tokens to take extra food home. No wonder he acted like a new pencil or a pack of sticky notes was the best thing he had ever received. No wonder a smile and a “great job” on an assignment would brighten his day. After my eyes had been opened to this, we had a much better (not perfect, but manageable) working relationship. I was more compassionate toward him and also more patient when he started to melt down.

My experience with Scott forced me to reflect on the idea of empathy. I feel like the last few months in this country have been tough. I keep reading that we have never been a more divided people (which Facebook makes so completely obvious-people are sure bold behind their computer screens!). In fact, I had to just stop watching the news and reading opinion articles and people’s political comments. I found that a lot of people, like me, were lacking an understanding of any different worldview than their own.

One of the first concepts I teach my 4th graders is schema, the collection of experiences and knowledge that makes each person unique, that helps them comprehend the world around them. But it is our schema that makes it hard for us to understand others. Because we haven’t been there, we haven’t seen what they’ve seen, we haven’t spent any time in their skin. So, how do we remedy this? How can we (as teachers AND parents) build a sense of empathy in our kids?

I’ve seen these floating around for a while and while I understand the message and the purpose, wouldn’t it be great if we could achieve both things? Academic intelligence AND kindness to those around us?

I believe that reading good literature is the key. In fact, there is research to back up this claim. Reading lets us enter worlds that are not our own, experience life from another person’s point of view, and understand the struggles of those who do not share our world views. Over the last few years, I’ve made a pointed effort to read a lot of children’s literature. I wanted to read what my students were reading and be able to recommend great books to them. And I’ve learned SO MUCH from these books, even as an adult. They have helped shape me as a teacher and as a mom. Here are a few of my recent favorites:img_3002.jpg

  • Brown Girl Dreaming, Feathers, and Locomotion, all by Jacqueline Woodson, all offering personal accounts of life as an African American adolescent in the South (Locomotion is about a kid in the foster care system)
  • On learning differences and kids with special needs:
    • Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullally Hunt- about a girl’s journey with dyslexia and learning to love herself
    • Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco- a memoir of the author’s struggle with learning to read and a teacher who helped her
    • El Deafo by Cece Bell- a biography in graphic novel form of a girl with profound hearing loss
    • Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper (I got to hear her speak at a conference once-she was AMAZING)- about a girl with physical and speech impairments who is finally able to communicate
    • Counting by 7s by Holly Goldberg Sloan- about a quirky girl who loses her parents but changes the lives of those who help her recover
    • Wonder by RJ Palacio- the story of a young man with facial deformities who learns to navigate school for the first time (soon to be a movie!)
  • Historical fiction that helps us understand what life was like for those who came before us:
    • Stella by Starlight by Sharon Draper- the story of a young African American girl’s experiences in a racist southern town with an active KKK, based on the author’s grandmother’s childhood memories
    • Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan- the story of a Mexican-princess-turned-Californian-migrant-worker during the Great Depression
    • The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley- about a physically deformed girl’s journey out of London to safety in wartime
    • The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes- about a young Polish girl who is bullied by classmates

While we already make time in the day in our house to snuggle up with beloved books, these are ones I will read with my children when they are old enough. These stories have the potential to lead to meaningful discussions about acceptance, kindness, inclusion, and friendship. Empathy is something we MUST develop in our children, so they can help others feel that they have a place to belong in this world. After all, isn’t that what we all want in the end?

Currently Reading: Emma by Jane Austen- I have had this on my shelf forever and I just LOVE Jane Austen so I’m excited to get back into her time.

Currently Baking: Blueberry Lactation Muffins (recipe here), because I’m nursing and I just love muffins. I made them gluten free with cup-for-cup gluten free baking flour and added a little bit more sugar 😉IMG_2973

Currently Singing: Okay this is embarrassing, but I cannot get the “Time for Your Checkup” song from Doc McStuffins out of my head. Not deep or meaningful, but real life. #momprobs

Thanks for reading and until next time, peace and love from my household to yours.

3 thoughts on “Empathy (and Why We All Need Some)

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