The Empathy That We Seek In Each Other

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at

Recently in class, my students were watching a CNN Student News Cast on Veterans Day.  In one of the pieces, they were talking to a group of kids who they identified as “military children.”  For some reason, this term did not sit well with one of my students.  She spoke up saying the equivalent of what did they do to make them so special.  I paused the video— admittedly a little irritated at the reaction— and explained to the student and to the class that what they did was give up their father or mother to fight for this country.  For some of them, this came with the ultimate sacrifice.  After explaining this to the class, I thought that things would run smoothly from here on out— I was wrong.  This comment had gotten students thinking.  During a very emotionally charged piece some of the students erupted in laughter.

I did not know what the laughter was about, but I was sure that I didn’t think it appropriate to be laughing during the piece.  Their laughter had struck a nerve.  My team had worked so hard to build a level of empathy within our students— empathy that was not showing up in our students at that time.  I stood up and came down hard. I spoke of empathy and the type of world in which we wish to live.  I asked: “What type of world do you wish to live in?  Do you wish to live in a world filled with hate, judgement, and violence or do you wish to live in a world filled with kindness, understanding and love?”  Most nodded their heads in agreement to the latter.   I explained: “If you wish to live in a world with kindness, understanding and love then we must be those things.”  I paused and asked them to spend the next minutes thinking about the world in which they wish to live.  I did the same.  During this time, I also checked in with some of the students who had been laughing.  Some thought that I had come down too hard and I wasn’t understanding their perspective.  I asked them their perspective and views.  I did not speak.  just listened.  I then stood at the back of the classroom processing and pondering my next move.  Then with about 5 minutes left in the class,  I repeated the question: “What type of world do you wish to live in?”  The class paused, some heads perked up and a few hands went up.  I didn’t call on anyone.  I just asked them to listen to why I had taken the issue so seriously.  I proceeded: 

I understand that some of you think that I came down too harshly.  I want to explain why I came down so hard.  Our team works tirelessly to teach you a way of being in the world— to instill you with a strong character and to teach you to become empathic citizens.  I can teach you the content, but that is not enough.  Many well-educated people have perpetrated horrible things.  When I see us judging others, my heart breaks.

A few shared their thoughts and I could see a shift in their perception of the moment.  The tone of the classroom had shifted.  It had shifted in a way that showed me that we had reached a greater understanding of each other— I of them, and them of me.  As class neared its end, I saw that one of my students still sat slouched with her head looking at the ground.  I walked over and asked: “Do you understand why I was so hard on the class?”  She nodded.  I then asked: “Do you understand why the video was meant to be so serious?”  She shook her head and began to explain that she didn’t understand what made their life so her.  She was someone who knew of hardship and didn’t get why they got to be so special.  She went on to talk about people in her family and some of the things they had to go through.  I could see the reason for her initial reaction at the ‘military children.’  Their voice and story was being heard while hers was one that people didn’t see as important.  We continued to talk and as we talked, we came to a greater understanding of each other.  She left the class, still sullen, but no longer upset with the situation in class.  The next time that I saw her in the hallway, she was back to her normal cheery self.

After all of this, I am left to wonder: What if I hadn’t had these conversations with the class and with the singular student?  It is likely that they would have written it off as me being ‘grumpy.’  The conversation would have stopped there.  Things would have likely continued as normal, but we wouldn’t have left with the greater understanding of one another that we left with that day.  Even days after this happened, I have had students approaching me to talk about their thoughts on it.  The fact that they are still thinking about it and talking about it is something that tells me that a real shift had been made.  The students were tossing around the idea in their heads and trying to fit their own values into it.  Days after, I am also still thinking about it and have come to the understanding that many of our students want their stories to be told— their voices to be heard.

Building empathy in our students is difficult work.  It starts with the way that we carry ourselves as teachers— as people.  Just as I said in my speech to the class, we must act out the values that we wish to see in the world.  If we want to see empathy in our students, we must be the ones who model what it looks like to be an empathic citizen in the world.  It means that we must be willing to be vulnerable and to show ourselves as real people who struggle, make mistakes and offer apologies when we have done wrong.  We must listen to the voices of our students and the truth that they speak and seek understanding of their way in the world.  If we wish to see a shift in our students way of being in the world, it is imperative that we make a shift in ourselves.  We must be willing to work our way through difficult conversations and hear the truths of our students.  We must humble ourselves and be willing to accept that we do not always have the answers to every problem or situation.

Many educators speak to the goal of building empathy in students, but are not willing to struggle through the many obstacles and difficulties that come with creating spaces in which young people can struggle through the process.  Once we have set our minds on creating empathic young people, it is impossible not to see it as a journey and a process.  The process of building empathy in young people is counter to the many bureaucratic fixes in education. There are no quick fixes and no one-size fits all solutions that can be applied.  There is only the willingness and fortitude to be patient and consistent while we help our young people mold themselves and come to their own awakening.

Just as we are all a process, building empathy in young people is a process— a long process.  There will be set-backs and false-starts.  There will be times that melt your heart and the heart of others and times filled with frustration and disappointment that has the power to bring you to tears.  It is worth it.  Our students deserve it.  There are few greater things that can be accomplished through education than to help young people discover their truth and teaching a way of being in the world.  As educators, we can choose to teach to a test or to go far beyond and speak to the heart.  Do we wish to live in a world full of people who can only  correctly bubble a test or do we want to live in a world full of people who convey kindness, understanding and love?  I choose the kindness, understanding and love.  


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