Building Empathy with our Students

I recently read an article published by Jay McTighe entitled Three Lessons for Teachers from Grant Wiggins. Several of us know the late Grant Wiggins for his work around Understanding by Design, feedback for students, and his cheerful and thought provoking dispositions.
For me the most notable lesson Wiggins had to share in the article was “Empathize with the learner.” I have always been a classroom teacher. I feel fairly confident that I know what the experience is like as an elementary schooler; I see them on the playground, I acknowledge the pressures they feel from parents, and I value their diverse interests and needs. However, there is so much more to their day-to-day experience than the opportunities we explicitly provide them.
With this in mind I decided to heed one suggestion to help me build empathy with students-shadowing a student for a day. I looked at my schedule, contacted a lower elementary teacher, was given a buddy, and spent an entire afternoon in that classroom. Fortunately, the homeroom and Chinese teacher welcomed me and the idea and agreed to let me come in on the fourth day of school. I am very grateful and appreciative to the teachers for letting me come in and learn.
Before I walked into the classroom room Thursday afternoon I set some agreements for myself:

  • I would follow the daily schedule, including specials.
  • I would sit with my buddy wherever she sat (carpet, table, couch, etc).
  • I would follow the classroom rules and procedures (rules for bathroom, water, electronics).
  • I would take my teacher hat off but be observant of my behaviors in order to reflect on the experience.

Here are some of my takeaways:

  1. Our teachers cultivate incredible communities within the first week of school.

Seeing as it was the fourth day of school, I was not surprised when the teacher told me beforehand that she was spending a lot of time on routines. However, while there were procedures and routines being learned it was done in such a thoughtful, kind, and caring way. The classroom rules were in positive language, children were encouraged to think and discuss why we have rules, and the classroom had thought provoking questions all around the room. When a student needed a reminder or redirection it was done seamlessly and with a smile and it was focused exclusively on the behavior, not the student. I found myself smiling and laughing along with the teacher and other students because there was such a warm feeling in the room. The read aloud and community building game at the end of the day was such a beautiful example of how our teachers consciously make decisions to develop the whole child and nurture the needs of the students in the room.

  1. Our students show more empathy to one another than we realize.

When I was on the carpet during math time and working at a student table there were frequent opportunities for interaction. I was amazed at the way the students spoke and interacted with one another without much direction from the teacher. They were inclusive, working together, sharing, showing self-awareness, encouraging others to share ideas, and making space for one another. This was all done not because the teacher reminded students but because of who they naturally are as individuals. It was really heart-warming. During the short game at the end of the day I observed how well the students were including everyone and supporting one another.

  1. As engaging, brilliant, and planned as we are, our students will not hear everything we say.

We ask our students to listen a lot. We are frequently asking questions, giving directions, restating directions, modeling, giving examples, giving non examples, making students laugh, and a myriad of other things. It’s a lot to listen to as a student! After some time on the carpet my eyes were starting to wander around the room. I was taking in the classroom set up, glanced at the clock, looked at the math center, noticed what other students were doing. All the while, I thought I was listening but when the directions came of what to do with the math manipulatives I realized I had completely missed the instructions. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with them! If this happens to us as adults, it is definitely happening for our students.

  1. I failed at taking off my teacher hat.

If I was really doing this right, I would have spent more time focusing on being a student. But in truth I was always thinking through the lens of a teacher. I was adding management strategies to my tool box, when the small group I was working with was stuck I was scaffolding my questions to help students, and when I saw a student in the hallway hit another student I immediately walked over and spoke with the child to have him apologize. But I’m going to give myself a pass on this one.

  1. Teaching is hard, but being a student is harder.

There is no doubt that ISB is full of hard-working, talented, and amazing educators. Our job is not easy. But, we at least have the benefit of knowing the content, we have the benefit of understanding how the activity should go, how long the lesson will take, what will be covered when. We have the power to change something when it’s not working, speed up or slow down when we need to, and ask questions to help our students get there. Our students don’t usually have this power. They are learning new content, reflecting on something new, learning to work with other people, and are reliant on the adults to (generally) dictate the time and the content. Add in the additional challenges of being a new student, learning in your non-native language, or mastering difficult content and we realize just how tough a student’s job is.
The experience of shadowing a student was incredible, and one I highly recommend even if only for a short duration. Have you experienced a Chinese class at ISB? Have you attended Art or PE? Sat with your children through lunch? Completed the homework they have night after night for a week? It just might help us build empathy with our students, and with each other.

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