I’m a dreamer of sorts. I believe that every day we have the potential to live in an increasingly sympathetic world — a world where we not just tolerate our differences, but a world where we accept and celebrate each other. Some days I see progress, and other days I watch the news on TV.
I remember very few things from my teacher training in the mid-80s. One thing I actually DO remember spending a TON of time learning and implementing was a teaching model of Science education. The model outlined various actions to be accomplished — the ‘boxes’ that we were required to fill-in were called ‘teacher actions’ and ‘student actions’. It was elegantly simple, but also particularly time consuming to write out for every lesson. At the time, it seemed to make some good sense as it laid out the lesson really well — and for a newly minted teacher, I was grateful for the structure it provided me and my lesson planning.
However, even back then I felt like it was missing the point in a big way — it never considered the students as people with different traits, needs, emotions and perceptions. It was completely missing the importance of empathy.
Where was I considering my students’ current knowledge deficits and strengths? Their learning styles? What about their readiness to learn? Did they just have a lousy night at home? The teaching model made good organizational sense, but it lacked any consideration for the actual people I was to be teaching.
I remember having a mild debate with a friend of mine in my graduation year about whether we taught STUDENTS or whether we taught CURRICULUM. As I reflect back on it now, it was a silly question — we teach both, but for me the most important consideration should always be the STUDENT. We teach young people — and as such, to be a truly effective teacher we need to understand them as people, filled with all of their complexities, abilities, challenges and faults.
If we don’t take the time to understand our students, how are we ever going be able to reach them in the classroom?
As my career unfolded, I soon discovered that if I spent the time to truly understand my students as the complex people they are, I became a much better teacher. For me, my EMPATHY for my students was probably the most important tool that I had in my ‘Teacher’s Toolbox”.
There’s a great article by Terry Heick (Teaching Empathy: Are We Teaching Content or Students) where he discusses the importance of teaching empathy. He states, “To teach a child is to miss that child. You must understand them for who they are and where they are, not for what you hope to prepare them for.”
This is exactly the point of empathy. For us to be able to teach our students to be empathetic we, as educators, need to be able to understand our students. We not only accept them for who they present to us in the moment, but it is critical that we take the time to truly understand them as the complex people we invite into our classrooms.
But what about actually TEACHING empathy to our students? Should we be doing that?
I believe the answer is YES — we need to teach empathy. In fact, I’ve seen many examples of teachers incorporating empathy as a regular part of their lessons — trying to instill a deep sense of understanding about others to their students.
However, as educators we also have an obligation to ask our students about themselves:
- “WHY do you think that?”
- “WHY did you write that answer in your homework?”
- “WHY do you feel sad today? Happy today? Quiet today?”
By taking the time to model empathy with our students we actually end up teaching empathy to a deeper level. And when we do that, we exponentially increase our chances of finding a more humane path forward, a more inclusive solution to the many problems we seek to solve — which, I believe, can ultimately lead to a better Canada and world — in stark contrast to what I sometimes find myself watching on the TV news.
And, after all, isn’t a better world what public education should be helping to create?