Saturday, December 12, 2015

Lessons in Empathy

"When you start to develop the powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you." 
~Susan Sarandon

Several weeks ago we began to improve our classroom culture by changing the mindset about Monday. Instead of dreading Monday we have fostered an attitude where we have begun to embrace its arrival. Our goal has been to create relevant learning experiences to inspire and elevate the spirit of our students. Each Monday has focused on various themes and their connection to us as a community of learners.  Resilience, self worth, gratitude and service are amongst the themes that we have explored thus far. The conversations that have developed each Monday have revealed a great deal about  the values, goals and achievements of all of the stakeholders within our classroom. 

This past Sunday I was checking my Twitter feed and considering possible themes for  "Inspiration Monday" the following day.  I came across a link to a You Tube video by Dr. Brene Brown comparing  Empathy and Sympathy.  After viewing the tounge and cheek animated video I realized that there are distinct and important differences that separate these two concepts.  Sympathy while an important gesture used to console others, lacks a deep leveI of emotional understanding. In order to attempt to understand the deep emotional feelings of others we need to develop empathy. We need to "walk a mile in their shoes".

 In a Middle School community where social and emotional learming share equal value with academic priorities it is especially important to create an awareness for the importance of empathy. Therefore I decided to explore it the next day as part of " Inspiration Monday".

The conversation started the next day by posing the question What is empathy?  to our students. Each class throughout the day clearly communicated an understanding of the definition and even asked for clarification on the difference between empathy and sympathy. After providing clarification on the two ideas we watched a short video "Can Empathy Change the World."

In this video middle school students shared their thoughts on the value of  empathy. They also shared how it could impact someone else's life. At its conclusion we had a follow up discussion. My students shared examples of situations that required empathy within their lives and gave examples where they have provided it. They felt as long as people were responsive to each other and recognized where situations required empathy, then positive change could take place on a small and global scale. Furthermore they felt the key to change was in consistently and genuinely paying the empathy forward.

On this particular day I learned a great deal about empathy, myself and my students. 

I learned that empathy can occur when we listen and truly seek to understand someone's perspective or it can occur via a gesture that addresses someone else's plight. 

I learned that empathy is a vital component of our humanity. When used effectively it can help to forge connections to build and strengthen relationships.

I learned that while middle school students have a tendency to be more focused on their individual lives than on the collective society ,they clearly understand empathy and have the capacity to provide it for others. When educated on its benefits they too can be empowered to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

Finally I learned that I need to work harder in my personal and professional lives to extend empathy towards others. It is not enough to simply extend sympathy toward others.  Only by offering empathy towards others can I hope to strengthen my connections and relationships with them. 

In order to improve , I must practice building genuine empathy as I seek to truly understand those in my life who I care the most about.  This was an eye opening revelation for sure and remediation requires my immediate attention. Steps need to be taken that address this personal shortcoming, if I am to continue to grow professionally and personally. I look forward to the challenge as I continue my journey as an educator and as a human being.

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