The role of schooling is to educate. Although we study subjects in school, we also study people. We learn to read, write and calculate. We learn facts, but we also learn how to think. To do this, we connect previously unconnected facts to each other. We empathize, and we weave knowledge. One might call this deep learning. To put it another way, we develop context as we discover that nothing is ever truly isolated.
Empathy is a social-emotional skill. In other words, it helps us understand other people. It helps us understand the context in which events occur. This is critical in a world in which social media plays a dominant role in communicating. As a result, teachers must incorporate empathy and social values into content knowledge.
Dr. Brené Brown reminds us of how to create a genuine empathic connection with someone else in this beautiful animation.
Social Skills in School
I would like to see a mandate for social learning absolutely mandated in every state
Kindergartners with good social skills turn into successful adults. Research shows a strong relationship between social competence in kindergarten and future wellness. Wellness includes improved academic skills and employment opportunity. It also means less criminal activity, better mental health.
Any parent or teacher knows that social skills are essential for success. That leads us to ask: How do you define them? How do you measure them? How do you teach them? As a result, positive classroom environment is essential for social-emotional learning.
Researchers found that kindergarteners’ social skills, like cooperation, listening to others and helping classmates, provided strong predictors of how those children would fare two decades later. Judy Woodruff speaks to Damon Jones of Pennsylvania State University about the findings.
The question I always ask myself is: How do I engage and connect with my students? They are a tricky audience. Each one is unique in their background, personality, interests and academic skills.
On the flip side I also explore my connection woes: Failures to establish relationships. Having favorites. Failure to listen. So many problems could be solved by just listening.
Ultimately, success in teaching is based in learning how to connect with students. Perhaps that is the secret to all things. Here are some tips to improve connections:
Say hello by name
Attention is the currency of interpersonal relationships
Attention for bad behavior is functionally the same as attention for good behavior
Make a point to spread the wealth (attention): recognize all students
Ask open ended questions, that is, questions that have multiple right answers
Emphasize the value and practice of sharing ideas
Listen, and restate what you hear
Have students listen, and restate what they hear
Ask students. Find out what students are interested in
Here is a question:
How often should a teacher connect with each student? And what does each connection look like?
If you are an elementary teacher with 32 students?
If you are a high school teacher with 180 students?
If you are an administrator responsible for a whole school?
Connectedness is a state of mind and a set of behaviors. Underlying it is the idea that diversity exists within our organizational self, our group, our relationships. However, our connectedness needs to be reinforced on a regular basis.
I remember when I was a first year teacher in Ithaca, New York. I often looked to my mentor teacher, Irma. She was master of her trade, full of warmth and wisdom. If I had had a child in second grade, I could have thought of no better teacher.
One day I was plying her with questions about classroom management. After each idea, I replied, “That is great.” After several of these exchanges, she looked me squarely in the eye and said, “You know, if both of us think exactly the same, then one of us isn’t necessary.” I clearly knew who was expendable in that scenario.
In my first year of teaching I had 25 unique children in my third grade class. To know each one was a challenge. Years later, when I was a high school teacher, connecting with 180 odd students was an even greater challenge. I always started with their names. Then their interests. I always tried to vary my interactions.
Years later I became a high school English teacher. We had to teach specific core novels. One of them was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved reading and re-reading it each year. In the novel Atticus Finch explains to his daughter Scout that one ought not to judge others, as she had been doing:
Atticus explains to young Scout how we never really know people until we walk around in their skin.
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it
I have never forgotten that quote. It still resonates with me. In this particular case, it really speaks to the importance of empathy, of how we connect to other people, and ultimately of our ability to think critically. Each year in 10th grade English class we would explore that concept with what seemed to be hundreds of variations by students. Students tied it into their own lives.
Adapting to the unexpected
Lesson planning is essential, but there are always times when things don’t go as expected. Effective teaching requires the ability to hear what students are saying, whether verbally or non-verbally. In other words, sometimes a lesson tanks.
Responding to the unanticipated requires flexibility, lack of ego, but also a connection to one’s students. The lack of ego is critical. We can never take lesson failure personally. If we do, then we miss a learning opportunity for our students. That is what teaching is about: learning.
Sharing ideas to make them better
I was particularly inspired recently with a drawing by teacher and artist Sylvia Duckworth. It is called “The Anatomy of an Idea” (see below). I found it on Twitter since I follow her – which by the way is a method I recommend to developing personal learning networks.
Empathy: What is it?
The importance and nature of empathy is explored in three videos embedded below. For those who want to know more, check out the Edutopiaarticle by Keyana Stevens from January 2016.
Enjoy the animation on empathy by Brené Brown. It could be used with professional development and it could also be used with students to stimulate discussion. It is deceptive in its simplicity. It illustrates empathy, and what it is not.
Then explore this video interview, What is Empathy? with students at varying ages. It goes well beyond how to spell empathy (which the interviewer apparently asks). Children and teens offers deep insights into how we connect with each other on a deep level.
Are we the only species to experience empathy? Some jaded folks might say not all humans experience it. Some scientists say that empathy is a human concept even though there is ample evidence on how animals comfort each other. I leave it to you for your consideration in the following video, Do Animals Have Empathy?
young people are becoming less empathic than ever; American College students showed a 48% decrease in empathic concern and a 34% drop in their ability to see other people’s perspectives
The study makes a pointed observation that our students are disengaging. Distraction may be a part of the cause. For example, 87% of millennials admit to missing out on conversations because they were distracted by their phones. The effect on the ability to focus can be significant.
Ironically, in a world that is increasingly connected, we as individuals, as families, as a society, are becoming less connected.
Teaching and learning is about more than skills. Academic development – including critical thinking – should include social-emotional awareness. That means that developing empathy is a core trait to be nurtured and developed. It is the core of our connectedness. It is our anchor with what is humanly important.