Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Role of Empathy in the Classroom:

Teacher’s lives are cyclic; fall is for new beginnings, winter is for maintaining momentum, and spring is for closure. And summer. Ah, summer. This season is not, as many assume, for leisure. Rather, it’s one of the most important seasons of a teacher’s year – a time for planting the seeds of next year’s successes; for reconciliation, reorganization, and recreation - not as in camping and swimming and hiking, but re-creation; re-invention and refreshment - a time for intellectual and emotional renewal. Summer is for upending syllabi, questioning assumptions, and stepping back to view the previous academic year through a wider lens.

I look forward to this season of re-creation every year. I poke my classroom’s sacred cows to make way for new ideas and strategies. As I organize the contents of my file cabinets and desk drawers, I account for the things I should keep and the things that need to go. Out with stale lectures, and in with lessons that engage everyone and create real opportunities for learning. As I’m purging, I keep my eyes open for the big flashes of insight and perspective that promise to impose order out of educational chaos.

The insight that emerged from this year’s accounting is the vital, and yet often misunderstood, role of empathy in the classroom. Much of what I teach and write circles around the subject of empathy, whether I’m teaching To Kill a Mockingbird or writing about character education. Teachers and parents praise the value of empathy as a skill we need to instill in our students, and that’s true. However, I find that increasingly, many parents would benefit by walking around in someone else’s skin for a while.

As a parent, it’s natural to look out for the interests of one’s own child, but it’s become commonplace for parents to demand that teachers cater to the needs of their student above all others. Tommy doesn’t want to participate because it makes him uncomfortable, and Alice gets upset when she’s ignored. Kate would like lessons to be conveyed visually, while Marcus would prefer verbal instructions. Mary can’t sit near Tammy and Jacob must sit near Matthew, and while we’re at it, email me immediately with any and all instances of negative language, gestures and expressions directed at Bethany.

This isn’t a call for empathy for teachers. That would be lovely, and I won’t turn that gift away, but I’m asking parents to have more empathy and protective instinct for the entire classroom community. Classrooms should be egalitarian, in that no one student is more important than the others, and all are integral to the class’ academic and social success. As we pass through this season of re-creation, I hope parents will consider planting seeds of empathy in their own backyards, to teach their children how to cultivate that virtue by setting an example. No need to worry if it’s a second planting; we could all use some reserves going into the year ahead.

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