Lately, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about empathy, partly because it is a huge part of the job of teaching, and partly because of recent world events. But mostly, it is because of two of my high school students. I have known Beth since she was a shy young lady in pigtails just entering 1st grade. I have known Zack since he entered our school in 5th grade as an intense young man with long bangs and an insatiable love of science. Both are now juniors in high school (although as any teacher knows, you never quite forget the children they were even as you watch them grow into who they are today). This past year has been a tough one for Zack. So Beth decided that he needed a “win,” something to give him a boost. She started a GoFundMe campaign called “Help Zack See a Rainbow” to buy him a pair of glasses that will help him see color (Zack is colorblind). It was a huge success and the glasses were swiftly funded by friends, family, other students, and parents – a really lovely outpouring of community support to rally around this student. I could stop this story right here, but there’s more.
At some point, another student inadvertently told Zack about the surprise. When Beth found out, she was pretty bummed. She went to Zack and said, “Well, I know you heard about your present.” And he went, “What present?”
“You know, the glasses?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. I don’t know anything about any glasses!”
So he knows and she knows he knows AND because he is a good friend, he is going to be one of the most genuinely excited people on the planet to get his Christmas gift from Beth this year. When I asked him about it, he said, “Ms. E, I’m just doing it because it’s what will make her happy. And because it’s what friends do.” I honestly can’t say who I am more proud of; the student getting her friend the glasses or the one pretending that he doesn’t have a clue about it.
I have been thinking about these two for the past few weeks now, because to me, their story exemplifies what empathy really is and how it can be fostered. One of the fundamental principles of educational movements such as Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is that we, as humans, are works in progress. We have choice; we can grow and change. This is precisely why social-emotional learning is such a foundational piece of education. Giving students the skills that they need to lead centered, empowered lives is a tremendous gift. Like math or reading, empathy is a teachable skill and like any subject area, we must meet the student where they are, not just where we wish they were or at the grade level their age dictates.
In his 2005 Kenyon University commencement address “This Is Water,” David Foster Wallace makes the argument that this kind of empathetic thinking is actually the true value of education in the first place. In his own words:
“… I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
This is yet another reason that I am so proud to be working with Little Ripples, helping to develop teacher training activities and preschool lessons that can be implemented in the camps to support sharing, helping and peacebuilding. The curriculum supports the direct teaching of emotional literacy, navigating your emotions, recognizing patterns of behavior, increasing empathy and committing oneself to noble goals. In addition, we are working on adapting a story-based curriculum that both boosts literacy skills as well as offers concrete opportunities to practice “putting oneself in another’s shoes” both for the children in our Ponds and for use with partner PreKs here in the US.
Empathy is not something that we simply have or do not have. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks almost one month ago, responses veered dramatically and swiftly from buildings and profile pictures colored in the stripes of the French flag and hashtags like #PrayforParis and #PorteOuverte to articles critiquing the Western world’s lack of response to similar events in Beirut, Lebanon only a day before and its indifference to incidents in Iraq and Syria. This division concerns me on several levels. One is the idea that there is a “right” way to mourn or to show grief or support; another is the implication that this is the limit of our human connection – that we are only capable of empathizing with those who are like us.
I think it is natural that empathy starts with what we know and ripples outwards from that. This ability, the willingness to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – even when we’re tired or it’s hard, or even when we don’t particularly want to because it takes work and it would be so much easier to write off that other person – is not an easy skill to practice or to cultivate on a daily basis. But like so many things, it is worth doing even when (and especially when) it is most difficult. To me, this is a statement full of hope and promise – and a great thing to keep in mind as we start a new year together on this planet.
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