Empathy: The Essential Ingredient for Transforming Your School Is Free

“Empathy means that for the time being, you lay aside your views and values to enter another’s world without prejudice. Being empathic is a complex, demanding, and strong — yet subtle and gentle — a way of being.” Carl Rogers

If you want to put students at the center of their learning but are not quite sure how to get started, I have good news. The first step and most crucial step is not an expensive technology platform or a complex redesign of assessment for competency education. Does that sound too good to be true? Trust me on this. You can take the first step anytime, alone, working with your team or entire faculty. Just close your eyes and think of your school days. Go ahead, take two minutes and meet me in the next paragraph.

If you are like me, the image that came to mind was the face of a teacher. I hope the image evoked happy feelings. I hope you had at least one teacher who truly saw you, nurtured your talents and gave you opportunities to contribute to your class and community. The teachers about whom I have positive memories knew and appreciated me, but they didn’t coddle me. In second grade Miss. Rowland prompted me to reflect on my unkind actions and make amends to a boy I teased mercilessly. When Mrs. Reece, the speech teacher at Carnegie Elementary, became exasperated with my chattiness she asked me to teach the class for a period. Then she debriefed the experience, noting my frustration with peers who did not listen. Both teachers gave me the correction needed, but I felt valued not blamed. Their guidance was actionable, not punitive. They left a lasting impression on me because they understood that their influence was anchored in trust and authenticity, not in their power to reward or punish. They understood my feelings and motivations and based their interactions with me on that understanding. They demonstrated an empathetic mindset.

In the past five years, I interviewed over a hundred educators, a few with national board certification, many with years of experience in outstanding schools, and some fresh out of grad school. In every conversation, I searched for the candidate’s capacity to demonstrate empathy. Of course, I sought to hire teachers who were adept with assessment data, understood the practical implications of cognitive principles and could establish effective classroom routines. But I wanted more than technical mastery. Why? Because the purpose of everything we do at school is to empower and inspire imperfect, unpredictable, inexperienced, remarkable human beings, children. Children of all ages crave a connection with adults. Empathy is an essential element of all meaningful connections.

When interviewing a prospective teacher or Head of School, I ask for a story about a challenging student or a difficult colleague. Most people give solid examples of problems and solutions. I don’t let them stop with a happy ending. I ask about the perspective and needs of the child or colleague. Sometimes I ask them to tell the story from the perspective of the child or colleague. Their response is the part of the interview I value most because it has revealed educators, even recent graduates, who are perceptive and compassionate. It has also uncovered significant red flags, sometimes with highly experienced and technically skilled teachers. I have regretted every decision I made to ignore the red flags and hire the technical “superstar.” Educators who lack empathy are incapable of authentically putting children at the center of learning, unable to build effective home-school partnerships, and are not successful collaborators.

In their March 2018 article in Educational Leadership Carol Ann Tomlinson and Michael Murphy defined empathy as

seeking to both understand a person’s condition from their perspective and understand the needs of others, with the aim of acting to make a difference in responding to those needs or building on the positives.

If we want to re-imagine education start by imagining a school where teachers respond to misbehavior by considering the needs of miscreants, an administrator coaches a struggling teacher by building on her strengths, and every faculty member creates strong school-home partnerships by first empathizing with parents. We know how to coach assessment literacy, model critical instructional practices, and guide the establishment of organized classrooms. There are many resources for developing social-emotional skills in children but little discussion on how to support empathy in adults. No one is universally empathetic, but an intentional focus on empathy can transform relationships with students, parents, and colleagues. In their books on building resilience in children, Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein suggest that self-reflection can promote the development of empathy. The psychologist’s prompt parents and teachers to reflect on the impressions they make.

1. What words do I hope my child/student/colleague uses to describe me?
2. What words do I think my child/student/colleague would use to describe me?
3. If the words my child/student/colleague uses to describe me is different from the words I hope he/she uses, what changes must I make to bring the two descriptions closer together?
4. Would I want anyone to say or do to me what I have just spoken or done to my child/student/colleague?
5. Am I saying or doing it in a way in which my child/student/colleague is most likely to listen to what I have to say, not become defensive, and respond constructively?

I have asked myself these questions, as a teacher, a parent, a leader, and a partner. Sometimes my answers make me exquisitely uncomfortable. That is when I know I am on the right track. Honest self-reflection has prompted me to apologize for exercising my power instead of seeking to understand my student’s perspective. I have asked team members to hold me accountable for genuinely listening. It took me several months to find the courage to ask myself these questions about the last year of my partner’s life. When I did so, I admitted my fear of losing him was so great I did not always understand or respond to his needs. That was painful. There is no going back but, until I faced my regret, there was no going forward. Fear blocks empathy. Facing our fears, admitting our shortcomings, and understanding the diverse perspectives in our school communities is necessary to move our schools forward, from institutions that label and sort children to centers of learning for all children and adults.

Empathy must become more than the first step in a design thinking workshop. Embed a simple empathy exercise into your daily routine. Focus on a child who was struggling, an angry parent or a frustrated colleague. What did you hear? What behaviors did you notice? What might the student/parent/colleague be thinking? What might they be feeling? Solution finding is not part of the exercise. Simply reflecting on on the perspective of others will make you a better teacher, colleague, and human.

One of my favorite schools is Hill, a K-8 in Middleburg, Virginia. Every time I visit I see evidence students are known as individuals and supported in reaching their personal best. The school’s traditional graduation benediction celebrates an empathetic ethos.

You have been loved and treated well at Hill School. You have gained some sense of yourselves as individuals, but there is still much to learn. Be open to that learning- sometimes it will be painful. You have felt a part of a larger family here. The world is not always so kind. Don’t be impatient. Don’t ever give up and when you find your place in this world remember to help others find theirs.

If we want our students to know themselves as learners and take positive action in our troubled world empathy must be at heart of how we treat one another. Every teacher can focus on empathy every day. Start by taking a few moments to close your eyes and imagine how your students describe you and how you want them to remember you.