Educating for Empathy

During my second year of teaching, one of my supervisors asked me what my vision was for my students. He asked it a lot more eloquently, and probably used some fancy words that I don’t remember.

I felt like I was supposed to say something like high test scores so they could get into a good college, or AP classes. But instead, I only remembered how meaningless all of those things had felt during my first year of teaching. Good grades really didn’t matter a whole lot if they meant the kid moving away from their family and not coming back to a town that needed them.

What I did remember was how fractured my classes felt, and how I couldn’t get my students to see that they were part of a community. I wanted them to walk away with a recognition of how their actions impacted others.

“What is that skill?” I was asked.

“Um, I’m not sure…” I stuttered. “I mean, empathy, I guess. If I want my students to understand how their actions impact others, then they need to be able to see things from another person’s perspective and understand how that person feels.”

I didn’t realize how important the concept of empathy would become in my life. Not that I’m very skilled at it—I’m not. In fact, I pretty much suck at it. If someone doesn’t respond the way I want them to, I tend to label them. It’s something I’m working on.

But if we ever want to see change in the world, we’re going to have to develop a sense of empathy.

Last month at FIGT’s Plenary Panel of Dudes, one of the questions that emerged was “Is there a decrease in empathy in the world?” One statistic reported that there has been a 40% decrease in empathy. I’m not really sure how you measure empathy, but that’s the statistic.

It’s impossible to deny the number of awful things that happen in the world. Whether its a genocide in Sudan or a shooting in South Carolina, bad things happen.

But it also makes me wonder, what if we all had a little bit more skill in understanding each other? What would that do to bridge worlds? How would that open conversations? How would the Cold War have happened differently, or WWII? Or the Crusades, for that matter?

I know this sounds easier than it is. It takes a lot of time to develop those skills, and it’s tough because, let’s face it, we’re human. We can’t read another person’s mind. It also takes exposure to other ideas. It also takes phenomenal people, and maybe political, skills.

But that’s why it’s so important to start it early, and in school. The more we expose kids to the skill of empathy, the more it becomes part of who they are. Instead of judging, we start to ask why a person sees something the way they do and evaluating the validity of that view and come to a common understanding.

So even though they have to learn math and science and history, let’s also teach them empathy.


One thought on “Educating for Empathy

  1. Ashley T. says:

    So true! I’m taking a negotiations class right now (which I expected was going to teach me how to be a strong, forceful negotiator), but instead our instructor is always trying to teach us empathy…because you’re not going to persuade someone else if they can’t feel your empathy…and that’s a communication skill we don’t use anymore!

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