Teacher Voice

December Can Be Tough. Let’s Bring Empathy and Grace Into Our Schools in the New Year

Everyday moments have the power to transform our thinking around the most important ideas in education. I was stopped cold in my tracks by just such a moment recently. One recent morning, a problem presented itself at my elementary school. I had a great chance to be a flexible, helpful person...and I blew it. Plain and simple. I was not the best version of myself and didn’t show up when I was needed to help out with a challenging situation. There were no excuses for this, only contributing factors. That beast of December had shown up: exhaustion. I wonder if I would have acted differently if it hadn’t been a Friday, if I hadn’t attended a variety of events and webinars every night that week or if hadn’t been up early to grade papers and hit the gym. I’ll never know. At the same time, the hero of the day was clearly Renee, our music teacher, who took on double classes all day. She parents two young children under the age of 3 and has a service dog to help manage pain and several illnesses. Yet she showed up with a smile on her face and said yes. That day Renee was who I always want to be. And I wasn’t. I felt terrible all day and apologized to those who needed to hear it, but this feeling of disappointment in myself lingered. At home later that night I shared with my husband. He had also had a challenging day at work, so while we compared notes and reflected, we reminded each other of the need to pause and consider others’ perspectives before we proceed.

It Takes Empathy to See The World through Other People’s Eyes

What we were talking about, of course, was empathy. It’s the critical skill we want our students to embody every day, the skill we all need to thrive as caring, productive human beings. As teachers, we work tirelessly in our classrooms to help students develop empathy by seeing the world through others’ eyes, or perspective-taking. I realized then the root cause of my failure was that I had not engaged in perspective-taking. I had failed to show empathy for the other adults in my school who were trying to solve a problem that morning. I had remained focused on myself only and did not consider the needs or positions of others. Empathy matters as much for adults in the schoolhouse as it does for our students. We get better at showing and embodying empathy the more we practice it, just like kids do. I was reminded in a powerful way that adults need and require social-emotional learning just as much as students do to make our schools succeed.

Let’s Give Others-And Ourselves-Both Empathy and Grace

My husband could see how upset I was that evening because I had let myself and others down. He said, “You almost always do the right thing. Forgive yourself. You have to move on.” Soon after, one of my best teacher friends texted me to wish me a good weekend. I told her what happened, and she said, “Aw hon, you’re human.” My friend was right. Sometimes, we just need to give ourselves a little empathy, self-compassion and grace. In “Fostering Resilient Learners,” Kristin Souers and Pete Hall write and share stories about the almost magical, mystical power of grace and how it can transform lives. They write “Grace can be life altering…..We must teach ourselves to access the attributes necessary to show grace: intentionality, patience, tolerance, understanding, empathy and kindness are a great place to start.” The power of grace and the need to show grace to the adults we work with, as well as the students we teach, is almost impossible to describe. The more we practice, the better we get at it, it’s as simple as that. The better we get at it, the more delightful our schools and classrooms will be. I needed to show myself some grace and move on. So I did. As we wrap up this calendar year and get ready for a new one, let’s commit to walking into our schools and classrooms overflowing with empathy and grace for the adults around us, including ourselves. Let’s commit to forgiving ourselves for being less than perfect and put our energy into moving forward in a better way. We can build our empathy muscles by paying attention to the small and meaningful moments all around us. Let’s embody grace with reckless abandon and watch with delight what happens in the schoolhouse.
Wendy Turner teaches second grade at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware. She is passionate about connecting learning in the classroom to the real world. Deeply committed to social-emotional learning, she guides her students to embody respect, empathy, citizenship and growth mindset through dynamic classroom experiences. She advocates for educating the whole child, trauma ...

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