How to Teach Empathy–& Why it Matters

It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of efficiency as teachers.  Standards and tests and data and reports bear down on us with pressure to make every. minute. count.


Efficiency Enterprises

There also seems to be an endless supply of initiatives to maximize our efficiency–many of which seem to simply offer more fodder for burnout, like some ideas found in the video below (at the proposition for increased class sizes for quality teachers, I could only visualize the exhausted expression of one of my mentor teachers the year they increased her first grade class size–because she could handle it, right?).

2/3/15 UPDATE: It appears that OpportunityCulture.org has removed their video after we published this post a couple of weeks ago. So, to fill you in if you missed it, the ideas we found most worrisome in the video included: 1) increasing class sizes for “excellent teachers” so more students could feel their influence (while decreasing class sizes for novice teachers); 2) implementing rotating classes for those “excellent teachers” so they could reach even more students each day; 3) an apparent oversight of the teacher-student relationship in general. Instead, their page now says the following: 

“Watch this space for an updated motiongraphic, based on the experiences of the first pilot schools to implement their own Opportunity Cultures, showing the importance of models that let teams led by excellent teachers reach many more students, and let all teachers earn more and learn more—through more school-day time for collaboration and planning, and without forcing class-size increases.”

10/29/2015 UPDATE: A new video has been published. The model is explained differently, but the basis still rests on class-size increases for excellent teachers and efficiency, which still leaves us concerned about the lack of discussion on teacher-student relationships. 

 Kim Collazo’s response on Twitter brings to light what’s most worrisome about these kinds of ideas:

Empathy Over Efficiency

Efficiency values time-management; empathy values taking all the time that is necessary to build relationships. Both have their place in our classrooms, but we must be careful that the more aggressive pursuits for efficiency don’t swallow up the daily opportunities to foster our relationships.  To learn more about why empathy is so important in every relationship, see the poignant RSA video below in which Dr. Brené Brown describes how to discern genuine empathy.

After all, what does it matter if our students ace every test and memorize every chart if they lack the ability to connect and reach out to one another in compassion and understanding?

Strategies to Convey Empathy

Whatever your subject matter, empathy should take a prominent place in all your instruction–both indirectly in general interactions with students, and directly as you point students’ attention to learning opportunities. 

Love & Logic
  • Even when students are in difficult situations that they created for themselves (ie, sloughing off in class), help them understand that you are still there for them. Start with empathetic responses like, “Wow, I’ve been there, and it’s such a hard place to be.”  The suggestions for solving the problem can wait until after the student truly knows you understand and care.
  • Starting with the youngest children who may cry out in frustration with using scissors, students can begin to gain a sense of authentic human connection when you respond with an empathetic, “I hate it when that happens to me!”  Help them know they are not alone from the earliest age!

recite-9ekru6

Take the time
  • Joe Bower shared a powerful example of what taking the time to teach a child about empathy–while reflecting genuine empathy–looks like.  “Working With Students When they Are at Their Worst” is definitely a worthwhile read!
  • If your class begins to have more widespread issues, such as dishonesty or unkindness, take time during weekly class meetings to discuss it.  Talk honestly about how those choices are impacting you as their teacher. Talk about everyone’s observations on how it’s impacting the class.  Then brainstorm possible actions everyone can take to solve the issue.
Cause & Effect
  • Have frequent conversations in which students picture themselves in another’s shoes.
  • Discuss possible personal struggles that peers may be experiencing, and which we would never know about.
  • Read books like Patricia Polacco’s Thank You, Mr. Falker that explore the impact of bullying.
  • Engage in process drama activities such as Decision Alley that get students thinking about different perspectives
  • Display the quote below by Philo, and frequently brainstorm ways we can be kind

recite-19kvlam


 

Photo Credit: 

Avoiding Power Struggles With Students

Those over at the National Education Association recently posted an article on how teachers can avoid conflicts with their students by decreasing power struggles. We take their advice and add our own thoughts below:


I think we’ve all either been the problem student or had to deal (directly or indirectly) with the problem students. We’ve all seen how teachers react, and learned which reactions deal with the students poorly; but how can teachers react to problem students in a way that uplifts, inspires, and corrects?

The tips the NEA gives are broken up into Dos and Don’ts. As we go through their list of just the dos (let’s focus on the positives), we’ll add explanations and illustrations.

Do:

Engage students from the beginning by providing a “hook” to keep them interested.

According to a Dr. Robert Feller of the University of Washington, helping students stay interested decreases potential disruptions. Retired teacher LaNelle Holland said:

Attention grabbers may be used to provoke thought, facilitate active learning, or just share experiences.

Some ideas for hooks/attention grabbers:

Try to understand a student’s personal/home life.

Another retired teacher, Diane Postman, suggests that being able to connect with a student on a personal level can help a teacher make “allowances or adaptations” to fit the individual needs of the student. This can create trust between a student and their teacher, which is likely to ward off disruptive behaviors. On the topic of creating trust with students, Ben Johnson, who is a superintendent in Texas, had this to say:

We earn our students’ trust by showing them respect in the form of meaningful, challenging, and rewarding learning activities that are worthy of their time and best efforts.

Students in their early years of school are naturally trusting, and — please don’t take this the wrong way — we abuse that trust in the name of socialization and classroom management. In essence, we teach them to obey rather than to explore. As students get older, they often trust less and start behaving…like our…suspicious visitor. Most will take what we offer but will not allow a learning partnership.

Trust works the other way, too. As teachers, we have learned to distrust our students. All it takes is one disruptive young person to ruin it for the rest of the students that follow. We don’t want to get burned again, so we tighten the rules and narrow the focus. We develop an attitude that we can’t trust our students to learn independently. Especially in the early grades, we feel it is our responsibility to control every aspect of their learning activities so things don’t get out of hand, or so they don’t make a mess. [1]

Turn the misbehavior into a teaching moment.

Taking time to immediately stop the confrontation is key. Showing the student in a polite manner that conflicts can be stopped before they escalate shows them an example of handling a situation in an adult manner; however, you don’t want the student to feel unheard, so in some cases is might be appropriate to set up a time to meet with the student privately to discuss the behavioral problem, such as after the period is over. To continue the trust you’re hoping to build with the student, remaining respectful is of utmost importance.

Frank Iannucci, a math and computer science teacher from West Orange, New Jersey, says teachers should immediately stop the confrontation and arrange to discuss it with the student in a mature, adult manner, regardless of the age of the student, after the period.

The most important thing is to be respectful and gain respect from love not fear! Thanks for reading and we’ll see you guys soon!

Featured Image: U.S. Department of Education