I was Voxing with my good friend Zac Leonard and we were discussing one of their more recent topics on #EdTechAfterDark: teaching empathy. I love the topics that they discuss on the Monday night chat as they are always relevant and real-world. I feel like with the heightened awareness of bullying and increased focus on kindness, teaching empathy has become a hot topic. Zac discussed how it’s difficult to teach empathy because there are no standards to follow, no assessment of how empathetic a person is. Therefore, it gets put on the backburner and it’s one of the areas that we just hope for the best. We pray that somehow discussing how our actions make other people feel and doing things like studying point of view in literature somehow morphs into being more empathetic. The issue is, I think that teaching empathy is difficult for so many more reasons than a lack of standards and assessment, although I wholeheartedly agree with Zac that it’s difficult to teach something that is so abstract and immeasurable.
First, I believe that there are certain levels of empathy that are part of nature. Certain people are born with the natural ability to be more empathetic than others. Similar to the way that math and numbers come easier to some students, empathy comes easier to some as well. And there’s nothing wrong with this. We wouldn’t tell students who struggle with numbers that they can’t learn math, just like we wouldn’t discard a student who doesn’t show empathy because we think they can’t develop it. So, if we teach empathy in school, our focus would be on the students who are not naturally empathetic and helping students who are naturally empathetic to cope with that skill. But, empathy is a feeling. Even if we can get a student to reason cognitively through what empathy means (eg. how would you feel if you were in Johnny’s shoes?) it doesn’t mean that we can get them to FEEL it. And the feeling, when it comes down to a situation of choosing to bully someone, for example, is what a child will go to when choosing how to react. To really teach empathy, we need to know our students so well, have relationships so deep, that we will know what will stir them emotionally. If we can’t connect with those emotions, it’s going to be nearly impossible to create the situation where they feel empathy. Knowing the logistics and the cognitive reasoning of empathy just isn’t enough.
Second, and most important, I hear adults speak about students and their lack of empathy as if we, as adults, have perfected the concept. I would argue that I have never worked in a system where I believe all the people I work with to have the amount of empathy that we ask our students to have. I have witnessed acts that would scream more apathy than empathy: hours of assigned homework, colleagues participating in adult bullying, unprofessional discussions in the teacher’s lounge and hallways…and if I witness this, it is probable that students witness this as well. Are we modeling the kind of behaviors of empathy that we want our students to show? Are we asking them to be better people than we ourselves are willing to be?
Empathy, kindness, consideration, politeness…it’s so imperative that we help students discover how the direct result of these actions produces wonderfully positive feelings, but it’s not enough just to tell them. Not only do we need to be the models for the students and the behaviors we want to see from them, but we need to dig deep into the relationships and connections that we form with students to find the driver for the decisions they make and how we can get them to feel. Knowing, in this case, is only half the battle.