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In Another’s Shoes: Why Teaching Empathy Matters

Jeff Parker

One of the key lessons relevant to education that can be gleaned from the COVID-19 pandemic is the importance and necessity of empathy. As students, teachers, administrators and parents all adjusted to new routines and approaches—often encountering frustrations and disappointments along the way—we collectively made it through, to this point at least, by “feeling each other’s pain” and responding appropriately.

Not much may have gone as smoothly or as productively as we would have liked, but I think most would agree that we’ve made the most of a truly tough situation. What’s more, by and large, we showed real empathy—an essential ingredient to our individual and collective futures. As such, it must be encouraged and developed at school as well as at home.

The Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education notes that, according to studies, young people who are empathetic are more apt to:

· Engage in the classroom

· Earn higher grades

· Communicate better

· Bully less

· Exhibit fewer aggressive behaviors and emotional disorders

· Enjoy more positive relationships

Of course, empathy is not just an ingredient for school and personal success, but for our work lives, too. Not surprisingly, empathy is increasingly a skill that companies look for—and demand—in those in they hire. The workplace has become so team- and collaboration-focused that those unable to view challenges and opportunities through the eyes of others are almost certain to fail.

As the world continues to shrink and workplaces become increasingly culturally, racially, ethnically and socio-politically diverse, the need for empathy only rises. This is all the more so when it comes to those seeking to join the leadership ranks of companies or organizations. As author and thought leader Daniel Goleman put it in his book New Leaders: Transforming the Art of Leadership into the Science of Results, “As the tasks of leadership become more complex and collaborative, relationship skills become increasingly pivotal.” There is no productive relationship—at work or anywhere—without empathy.

Some suggest that empathy is too difficult to teach—or, worse, that it can lead to one being consumed by the needs and feelings of others to the point of ignoring one’s own. I believe this to be a false assertion. Having a healthy sense of empathy and a healthy sense of self are two sides of the same coin. One can be both empathetic and self-aware, empathetic and self-motivated, empathetic and independent. The key lies in building an honest and realistic view of oneself—to the extent that any of us can!

There are a host of online resources offering educators a wide range of helpful tips and resources on teaching empathy, including those offered by the aforementioned Making Caring Common Project. While empathy is easily integrated into such subject matter as literature—where we are called to empathize with a story’s characters and their struggles—it can be incorporated into virtually any subject with a little creativity.

Of course, one of the best ways to teach empathy is through example. And not a day goes by in which a teacher, parent or even the students themselves is presented with a chance to demonstrate how putting oneself in another’s shoes makes for a better world.

For example, a teacher made a comment in a recent educational visioning session that really stuck with me. She said, “Zoom gave me a window into my students’ worlds.” She went on to describe the view the pandemic gave her into her students’ home lives—all with varying degrees of functional or dysfunctional dynamics—family resources or lack thereof, etc.

When we see a classroom full of kids sitting in the same chairs and maybe even wearing the same clothes, we tend to assume they all come from the same kinds of circumstances. We may forget that they come from different circumstances. This educator’s recollection reminds us that that’s not always the case… and that teacher to student empathy is a really big deal!

Let’s not discount student to student empathy, either. One of the great benefits of project-based learning (PBL) is that it creates a setting for students to stretch their empathy muscles. How do they work with someone who isn’t carrying their weight?  Why isn’t that person carrying their weight: are they slow, tired, disinterested, or stressed about something else? And, how can the rest of the group help them past that? If the student in question is just choosing to be difficult—because that can happen, too—how do the students work around that? PBL takes a very, “rising tides raise all boats,” mentality that is crucial to practicing empathy.

COVID reminds how essential empathy is to overcoming the challenges we face. It also reminds us that more, perhaps even greater, challenges, lie ahead.  Whatever those may be, empathy will help see us through.

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