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  • Writer's pictureChristine Hertz Hausman

Tackling tricky moments: Four steps to being a more empathetic teacher

Welcome back to our blog series! As you know, we’ve been writing about changing how we approach classroom community building, to move beyond one focused on rewards and punishment to one that has Kids’ needs First (ehh? See what we did there, we have a new book called Kids’ First from Day One, check it out here!) But how do we figure out what kids need? Really need? Not just what we think they need? Well, it starts with empathy.

Beyond the Buzz Word: What is Empathy?

You might think that being an empathetic teacher is just part of the gig (“Of course I’m going have empathy for my students- I care about them, I’m a kind person, I’m a teacher for crying out loud!) but, it is sometimes easier to want kids to see it from our point of view (“I’m trying to teach you! Listen!”) than to see it from theirs (“We’ve been sitting for a long time and we need to move!”).

John Hattie, a preeminent educational researcher, has studied the effect size of certain teaching “mind frames” and found that the more connected you are to your students, the more empathetic you are as a teacher, the better your students will do. The relationships you form with your students provides the safe and sturdy foundation for all other learning to come, teaches children strategies for self-awareness and self-regulation. The empathy you model sends a powerful message about how we treat each other in the world.

Every single teacher has times where, in the heat of the moment and the stress of the job, we dismiss our students’ problems (“It’s just a broken pencil!”) or feelings (“Don’t get upset, sure you got that math problem wrong, just try it again.”) without even meaning to. When we cast these moments off, we are slowly wearing down our student’s sense of trust and connection.

But empathy is an interesting thing– there is, in fact, such a thing as being too empathetic or at least not empathetic in a very helpful way. We certainly don’t need to mirror children’s big reactions and treat each broken pencil like a broken bone, but we don’t want to dismiss them, either.

So how do we find a happy medium? How can we be concerned, connected and helpful?

Erik Barker– who writes a weekly newsletter that aggregates “science-based answers and expert insight on how to be awesome at life”– recently shared that researchers have found three distinct forms of empathy: Emotional empathy, cognitive empathy and compassionate empathy. Emotional empathy means that you’re really feeling how that other person is feeling. You’re reacting in a very visceral way (google “Mirror Neurons” if this stuff fascinates you as much as it does us.) When someone you love loses someone they love, you feel that loss deeply. That’s emotional empathy. For an analogy, this is like checking the weather in another state that is much colder than yours, truly feeling that cold, and dressing for it when you go outside, even if it’s 85 degrees where you live. If you were to experience emotional empathy every time a child broke a pencil or lost a game or incorrectly solved a math problem you would be: a) completely exhausted and b) not very helpful to the child or the rest of your class. Cognitive empathy means that you can understand the situation and the feelings, but in a more conscious, cerebral way. Perspective taking is also an element of cognitive empathy– you can understand how a person feels and imagine what they might be thinking, but you don’t feel the same emotional reaction. Going back to the weather, this is like seeing that same cold forecast in that far away state, and understanding that it is cold, and then going along your merry way. Though this is a good skill to have, it does not necessary mean you become more connected, more helpful, or a better teacher to your children. Compassionate empathy allows us “to feel for, not with,” Barker writes, “And this drives us to want to help, while not emotionally impairing us from helping.” Enter the weather again, seeing that cold forecast now means you know how very cold it might be, and you feel for the friends you have suffering through it, so you send some care packages with hand warmers and hot chocolate mix. Compassion helps us connect with our students emotionally, model self-regulation strategies, and solve problems. It’s this form of empathy that helps us to not only truly see and hear and feel for our students, but also helps us help them.

How Does This Help Me Build Community? In our classrooms, as in life, there will be issues that arise. The goal of a classroom community is to not prevent children from ever encountering negative feelings or hard moments, but to teach them how to handle those times while preserving and building their sense of optimism, joy, and resilience. This will build a smoother running community and a smoother running life. The times we so often dread as teachers (Oh no! Timmy is having a meltdown!) we often dread because of what it means for our day (now my whole lesson is ruined!) which can lead us down a path that makes changing the undesired behavior about us, not about what Timmy needs to have a better life in general. It is possible, and we would even say necessary, to understand and acknowledge our own feelings (I worked so hard to plan this and now it’s off the rails, I am so upset) while still putting them aside for later so we can then help the child through the moment with compassion. Over time, you may find less of the moments happening, and you may find that as you center kids, your own feelings of frustration transition to a more flexible mindset. (More on this in another blog post!) So what does this look like in our day-to-day classroom moments? Theresa Wiseman researched four attributes of empathy that can serve as a step-by-step guide that we can use: Step 1: Take their perspective. Put yourself in your student’s shoes and use your whole body to show that you’re empathising. Get down on their level. Turn your body and your full attention to their concern. Use cognitive empathy to imagine, really imagine in your brain what it would be like to be in their position. This may feel hard when one child is having a hard time in a whole classroom lesson. “What? Am I going to stop my whole lesson and do this?” you might ask. The answer might be yes in the beginning, or you might give the child a moment to regroup (“I want to hear what you are feeling. Why don’t you get a sip of water and then we can talk in a minute.”) while you finish up with the whole group. Don’t hope the issue will just go away. Ignoring the gaslight just means your car will run out of gas. Step 2: Don’t rush to judgement. What might be seen as a trivial problem to us as adults, may just mean the world to a five, seven or ten year old. Catch yourself if you’re rushing to judgement or rushing to dismiss what they’re upset about. Instead of sympathizing, getting defensive, or automatically fixing or negating the problem, just listen and let them be heard. Step 3: Recognize emotions. Try to hone in on the emotions that the student is expressing or attempting to communicate. In order to do this, you’ll have to put aside your own emotions, not forever, just for now. Helping your student to name the emotion that they’re feeling is one of the first steps to calming them down and tapping into their reasoning brains. Step 4: Communicate and connect. Brené Brown says that the two most important words when you’re trying to be empathetic, when you’re trying to reach someone who is struggling, are “Me too.” Try to connect with a student and communicate your understanding of what they’re going through. To do this, you might have to put aside your desire to get things done, keep things moving and have a neat and tidy teaching moment. Let it go. Live to teach another day.

And Now A Minute to Entertain Doubts:

This won’t work.

This isn’t fair to the other kids.

I can’t spend all day helping one kid.

I need to get to my lessons.

Okay, real talk, all these doubts are actually true statements. Sometimes it won’t work, and sometimes you won’t be fair to other kids, and you do need to get to your lessons and all day spent helping one kid is not exactly your job description. We are not denying any of it. But, and this is big one, what other choices do we have? To shame the kid? To move their color and change their clip? To wish it away? To send them to another classroom where we don’t have to deal with it anymore? Are those really choices we can ethically make, now that we know the impact of our words and actions on a child’s self image? This child, and every child, deserves a chance to learn how to navigate the world successfully. When we choose empathy and compassion, we choose humanity and hope. And you know what? There will be days when it works, and days when helping one kid is fair to the rest of the class in the long run, and a day spent helping that child is time gained back across the year, and sometimes the most important lesson to get to is the one about how we treat each other. When we teach with heart, we tap into our empathy, but also into our spirit of play, our ability to be flexible, our self-compassion and ability to grow and flourish, and our reflective selves. Kristi and I will be putting together a series of posts that will highlight each of these teaching mindsets. And, you can read much more in our forthcoming book from Heinemann Kids First from Day One: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom.

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