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Cultivating Empathy in Students

As I sat in a meeting with my colleagues to discuss creating a positive school culture for learning, we all enriched the discussion by sharing our stories and experiences. By the end, it seemed that we were all coming back to the same point; empathy.

So I started reflecting; are we born with empathy? Or is it something that we need to develop? And, if we are born with empathy, what happens over the years? How do we lose it? Why do some people seem to be naturally empathetic, while others have to put in the extra effort to really understand what someone else is going through? If I could answer these questions, I would be able to assess and decipher what our role as educators is when it comes to empathy. Do we teach it from scratch? Do we nourish it? Do we open opportunities in class for it to be shared? What do we really do?

Let’s take a moment here while I reflect on my own self. I have struggled my whole life with being too emotionally invested in anything. Yes, anything that spurs any kind of emotion. Instead of having to actively remind myself to be empathetic, I have been taught by my environment to always be conscious of not being too empathetic. It wasn’t until the last few years of my life that I’ve learnt to cherish this attribute within me. It didn’t happen over night. There were many turning points along the way, such as the one I am about to describe.

I think back to this memory with one of the Syrian newcomers that I had the honour of working with, which I wrote about in a past post:

As we work on making cubes with the 6 universal emotions on all six sides, my high school students and I are talking about the importance of expressing ourselves and our emotions. One of my students looks at a his peer’s cube and, with the biggest smile on his face, says: “that’s so colorful! Did you dip it into a paint can or something?!” My group of about 10 students bursts into laughter. The volunteer in my classroom turns to this student and says: “you are so funny!” I, at this point, am just translating back and forth. He says: “Is that a good thing?”. She says: “Of course! You always make this environment so happy!” He turns to me and says: “I never used to be like this, but one day, my cousin told me, when you die, what will you take with you? Not the sadness. Not the misery. You will only take the happiness and goodness that you spread.” At this point, I am so proud and shocked with the level of maturity that this teen demonstrated.

“Then my cousin died,” he said.

Now tell me, dear person reading this, how would you react in this kind of situation? Do you ask questions? Do you worry about the rest of the students in the class listening to this? Do you change the topic? Do you ignore what you just heard this?… What do you do?

I decided to take off that armor that I had on and to allow my vulnerability to do its work at this point. If this student opened up the topic, that means he already trusted me with it. So, little by little, he unpacked his story right before me, and I could see it so clearly as he described it in the gravest possible detail. It got worse. I resisted stopping him from talking many, many times.

It was difficult to listen to. It was difficult to take it all in. But, if it was difficult for me to listen to, how difficult was it for him to go through it, and talk about it?

That was one of the defining moments of my teaching career, because when I went home, I reflected deeply on my role as a teacher. I couldn’t stop the human in me from affecting the teacher in me. My role is to ensure a safe learning environment and that sometimes could lead to wanting to shelter students from the pain of the world. But how could the pain go away if it is not acknowledged? Perhaps my role is not just to create a safe learning environment, but also a resilient one. An empowering one. That’s when I realized that both the human and the teacher in me are one. You cannot be one without the other.

So on this recent journey to research whether empathy is inborn or developed over the years, surely enough, I discovered that it is inborn, but must be nurtured over the years. Nurturing it begins with acknowledging its presence in the first place. What does that really mean? It means that we must be more attentive to the natural ways in which our children demonstrate empathy, kindness and compassion. And we must reward these demonstrations. A reward could be as simple as saying: “thank you for your kindness”. Never dismiss someone’s natural ability to be empathetic, kind or compassionate. Overtime, such dismissal can silence and deafen this natural gift that we are all born with.

Now you might be wondering why I chose the term “cultivate” to put before “empathy”. It’s simple. Cultivating means fostering the growth of something. In other words, we are acknowledging that empathy already exists within us. All we need to do is create the proper conditions for it to be active and alive. When we plan our lessons, we are told to start with students’ prior knowledge. This should also apply to how we educate the humans in our students. We need to start with what they already have, and with what they know about what they already have. That is how we set them up for success. That is how we strengthen their strengths and empower them to have the courage to be the humans that they already are. More importantly, we should never assume that students know how they should act or react, because we don’t know what their home and social environments have conditioned them to believe. When we assume, we are more likely to judge. And when we judge, we are more likely to give negative consequences to students when they genuinely might not know any better. When we have a certain standard, we might miss a simple gesture of empathy on behalf of a student. We must therefore be attentive and not shy away from acknowledging these gestures as simple as they may be.

So what does empathy look like and sound like?

The definition of empathy, as described by Brené Brown, prominent researcher in the field of shame and vulnerability is:

  • To be able to see the world as others see it.
  • To be nonjudgmental.
  • To understand another person’s feelings.
  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.
    (Based on nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s four attributes of empathy. Source: Psychology Today)

Based on this, how will you put the empathy that already exists within you to cultivate, to foster the growth of, empathy in your students? Will you allow the human in you to enrich the teacher in you?

– Najwa


Published inMy Classroom Reflections
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