My Classroom Changed When I Started to Understand What Empathy Really Is

Feb 23, 2017 12:00:00 AM


Don’t judge a book by its cover. Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. These sayings are frequently used to get people to empathize with others. But, what does it really to mean to empathize with people, especially our students? I came across the topic of empathy after I began reading the book, “The Formative Five,” by Thomas R. Hoerr, and participating in a restorative justice activity at a professional development session. These resources really opened my mind, and I began to reflect on my own understanding of empathy and question whether I really empathize with others. I have a student—I’ll call her Kim—who just transferred into my English class mid-year. She always arrives late to class and struggles academically with completing assignments. In the beginning, I was frustrated that she wasn’t meeting my standards. But I never did try to communicate with her, I just assumed she was not motivated or passionate about her education. However, after reading the book and participating in the restorative justice session, [pullquote position="right"]I challenged myself to listen and understand.[/pullquote] Sitting down with Kim, I experienced a story that I never took into consideration. Kim is one of five children and has to help get her younger siblings ready for the day and school, making it difficult to get to school on time. Just being able to listen and understand, I was able to empathize with Kim, and we quickly developed a plan together to help her succeed. Empathy is different than its counterpart, sympathy. Sympathy means to just offer thoughts and support without really understanding or experiencing the situation. However, empathy works differently. Empathy means a person understands deeply the attitudes, thoughts and feelings, and has tremendous experience of the situation. Building empathy is not easy, but it’s a skill that our society and teachers and students need. As a teacher with 15 years of experience, I had to reflect back on times of my use and understanding of empathy. My students come from a variety of backgrounds and home-life situations. Had I stopped to listen, listen deeply and understand? In truth, I was surprised to realize that sometimes I was not empathic and relied on many assumptions. As an educator, I’ve realized that building empathy doesn’t mean simply assuming about our students, “Oh, they have issues or a hard home life.” We need to really place ourselves in their shoes and listen and understand, and only then can we really reach them and help them thrive in the classroom.

Being a Role Model

Not only does this act of empathy support the student’s learning, it also models for them a life skill. As educators, we have a great influence on our students. We are the consistent factor in many of our student’s lives. But, are we role-modeling the importance of empathy? Are we working the concept of empathy into our instruction? Hoerr’s book offers six steps that we, as educators, can use to support our students in building empathy:
  1. Listening: Paying attention to what is being said and how.
  2. Understanding: Gaining a cognitive grasp of the other’s point of view.
  3. Internalizing: Truly processing what we’ve heard and “being in the shoes of others.”
  4. Projecting: Considering what approach would help the other person in this situation.
  5. Planning: Developing an appropriate response based on empathy.
  6. Intervening: Executing the plan, making sure to be inclusive and collaborative.
Each step Hoerr discusses provides tools to help students really strengthen the use of empathy in their lives. However, in order for our students to become better at empathizing, we need to develop the skill ourselves. We need to be role models who demonstrate the great practice of empathy. We need to model the values and skills, but we also need to be genuine in understanding and listening. We can no longer assume situations about our students, but we need to get to know them; we need to place ourselves in their shoes to truly understand and help them succeed in school and in life. As Hoerr states in his book:
Our students need to know that we are all on the same journey—that although we are at different places and making progress at different speeds, we all aspire to the same goals.
Teachers, I encourage you to reflect on your current level of empathizing. Do you really listen and understand? Remember, the next time you see a student struggling, ask yourself what is really going on. What happened the night before to the moment they arrived to the room? Stop. Listen. Understand.

Troy Rivera

Troy Rivera teaches English at the high school level at University Schools in Greeley, Colorado. He has been teaching for over 15 years at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Troy is a fellow with America Achieves and TeachPlus/NEA, and his mission is to make all his students successful, lifelong learners.

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