An Argument for More Empathy in the Classroom

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I had a different entry planned for my return to writing posts today, but this weekend I went to see the new Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and walked out glowing with inspiration.

Beyond being a well-constructed film following the life and times of a fascinating man, the main theme of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a message sorely needed in today’s world: what made Mr. Rogers successful and great was his relentless, unwavering commitment to empathy. 

There is a wonderful line in the movie where one of Rogers’ tech crew said that Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood did everything wrong from a TV production perspective. TV is supposed to be ceaselessly noisy, but his program was filled with silence. TV is supposed to move fast, but he moved at a nearly glacial pace (he once set a timer for a minute and sat there in silence for the whole time to help kids understand what a minute is). TV shows are supposed to use their vast resources to make the costumes, sets, and props as real and polished as possible, and yet he used the same ratty puppets and papier-mache set for over thirty years. But the show still worked, earning consistently high ratings in five decades and the reason was that while kids do often love noise and action and pageantry, they also love people who make them feel understood and valued, and that is exactly what Fred Rogers did for millions of kids.  

Besides being of topical interest due to the profound lack of empathy that seems omnipresent in the media and social media of 2018, the movie entranced me because it brought home an idea that I’ve been thinking about over the past few months: empathy is vastly underrated and remarkably powerful stuff. As teachers it really should play a central role in our daily plans.

This realization started, as so many important lessons do these days, with my two year old daughter, who developed an unfortunate habit of yelling “No talking!” to any adult speaking to anyone but her. In the pursuit of a way to improve the “no talking” situation, a couple months ago I picked up Joanna Faber and Julie King’s How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, which is a book I’ve long looked to read but hadn’t made time for until recently.

Part of my hesitation in reading How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen is that I so often find parenting books to be off-putting due to how judgemental they tend to be concerning anyone who doesn’t subscribe to their systems, but I am happy to report that this book was the complete opposite of that. Its central idea is that behavioral interventions work best when prefaced by empathy, and much like with Mr. Rogers, Faber and King practice what they preach. Their approach to the book was so deeply empathetic that as I read I couldn’t help but feel them to be kindred spirits, which in turn opened me up to truly listen to their philosophy.

What Rogers, Faber, and King helped me to see is that empathy isn’t just some touchy-feely thing that makes people feel good; it is a highly effective communication tool. Humans constantly put up walls, cast judgment, and dismiss the viewpoints of others, and empathy disarms these things and allows us to truly listen to what someone else is saying.

Further, empathy is also a strong emotional tonic that can relieve us of a whole host of toxic emotions. Brene Brown in the following (and wonderful) TED talk calls empathy the antidote to shame. Tom Newkirk says a similar thing about embarrassment.

Minimizing these toxic emotions is incredibly important because our brains are designed with preservation as the top priority. We have an ancient survival system in each of our heads called the reticular activating system (RAS). It filters all incoming stimuli, and when things are going well, the RAS is an open door. But when we feel strong negative emotions like shame, embarrassment, anger, and, stress, the RAS is built to cut off the critical thinking regions of the brain and then channel all of the brain’s resources into flight, fright, and general self-preservation. The point of this is for us to stop thinking and start acting, which the brain calculates will give us a better chance of survival.

Once the RAS steps in, motivation and learning shrink to nearly nothing and stay at that level until the danger is past. I would argue many of our students–especially in the face of difficult material–are in this state a lot of the time, which is bad news if we are trying to teach them. When students are defiant or upset (fight) or recede into their phones or non-engagement (flight), there is a good chance that the RAS is involved, meaning they won’t really be able to learn until they return to a normal state. While evidence is still scant, it appears that empathy is potentially the best de-escalator in these situations and also the best deterrent to the RAS being triggered in the first place, as it is hard to build up enough shame, stress, or anger when we feel that someone is truly listening and understanding us.  

Between the movie, book, and all of the science above, I have come to the conclusion that  this year I need to incorporate significantly more empathy into my instruction, especially in regards to writing, which can be particularly anxiety-inducing for so many kids. Of course, this is not to say that empathy doesn’t currently play a role in my classroom. I greatly value listening and building connections with students, but I’ve come to realize that true empathy is about more than listening to or bonding with a student over a shared experience. True empathy is about seeking a deep understanding of where the student is coming from, which is something I don’t always do.

Far too often, like many teachers, when a student has a problem, I instantly get into problem solver mode. If a student says that he/she/they writes bad essays, I tend to respond with a tip (“have you tried outlining…”), share a pithy quote (Hemingway said “All first drafts are [junk].” Have you tried writing multiple drafts?), or offer a path forward (Let’s focus on this essay. What elements of Romeo and Juliet spoke to you?). While sharing words of wisdom and helping a student understand a new path are wonderful things, they aren’t exactly empathy. Empathy would be getting to the bottom of their feelings, making it clear I understand them, and only then working towards the solution, which would then ultimately have a much higher chance of success if the research surrounding empathy is true. 

So I hope to make this year the year of empathy. I want to inquire first, clarify second, and then, and only then, seek solutions. Or to put it in terms English teachers will connect with, I want to stop playing the role of the well-meaning, but under-informed problem-solver like Friar Laurence (for whom things don’t go well) and instead strive to play the role of Atticus Finch and act only once I’ve taken a good spin in my students’ shoes.

Thanks as always for reading.

Yours in teaching,

Matt

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2 thoughts on “An Argument for More Empathy in the Classroom

  1. I can’t recommend Katherine Bomer’s Hidden Gems enough for responding to writing with empathy. When I started using her methods/attitudes, it felt like I was starting to undo years of damage to kids’ writing psyches.

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