Try empathy

I remember the first time I stopped treating sympathy and empathy as synonyms. I was attending a police academy in Dublin, CA, and a firefighter visited us cadets to discuss the basics of paramedics. He said we would someday come across people in great physical and mental anguish, and in preparation, we needed to cultivate a way to mentally approach their pain. He then went on to explain that sympathy is when you feel badly for a person, and empathy is when you put yourself in their shoes and feel their pain.

It had never occurred to me that feeling sorry for someone was not at the same level of caring as experiencing someone else’s sorrow and allowing that hurt to permeate your heart. Then I remembered junior year English class when I read Atticus Finch’s words in To Kill a Mockingbird:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

If you can put yourself in someone else’s place and truly understand why they committed a crime, hurt another person, continually allow another person to hurt them, etc., then you’ve found your way from sympathy to empathy. The following video does a better job than I ever could in explaining how to be empathetic:

I don’t even know what to say right now, but I’m so glad you told me.

Empathy is very important in the field of education. Classroom teachers are overwhelmed, and instructional/technology leaders must have empathy for everything teachers are going through. Without empathy, connections aren’t made, and without connections, many teachers will not want to attend professional development sessions, be patient with technology, switch to Common Core, or try any of the myriad approaches that could be helpful in improving how they operate.

I recently visited a classroom in which the teacher was fed up. A computer program she was expected to use on a daily basis was not working effectively, and it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. She began crying, explaining the pressure she felt with the many changes with which she grappled. She ran through the list of items we’re all familiar with that teachers face, and it quickly became apparent that there was nothing I could say to make her feel better. What she wanted was someone to listen–someone who cared. The only thing I said when she was done sharing was a paraphrase from the above video: “I’m so sorry, and I’m really glad you told me about all of this.”

The thing is, I’m not equipped with the words that can fix all her woes. I can’t modify Common Core or reprogram a company’s glitchy software. What I can do is listen, make a connection, and let others be heard. Educational leaders want results, and oftentimes we push too hard during PD sessions or classroom visits. It’s important to remember that empathy can go a long way toward attaining our instructional goals, for teachers and students.