Core Practice #3: Empathy

Empathy is a choice; and it’s a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.

Brene Brown

My exploration of our school’s seven core practices continues this week as I reflect on the context and practice of Core Practice #3: Empathy. The etymology of empathy arose in the early twentieth century from the Greek word empatheia (from em- ‘in’ + pathos ‘feeling’); it is feeling into another (in German the term Einfühlung was coined); and it is related to the process of self-activation. The meaning of empathy has evolved over the past century. Empathy has evolved to hold an elemental place within education; it is a foundational core practice in our school because without empathy a true learning relationship cannot be be built. Empathy is about connection; connection is about developing relationships; learning involves the dance between learner, teacher, peers, and the curriculum.

Cambridge University scholar and researcher, Helen Demetriou, knows a lot about empathy. And she is very specific about its foundational requisite in learning. Quite simply: If we desire our kids to foster empathy then we need to model it through healthy reciprocating relationships. This also includes the classroom. Teaching and learning involve feeling. Feeling in. Feeling into another’s perspective. Without empathy for the learner and the learning process itself, teaching may be an act of desperation and melancholy.

Empathy is the glue for emotion and education. A child’s empathy grows with the adult’s ability to empathize. Empathy takes time and patience as relationships need to be built. Empathy has both intellectual and emotional attributes. Awareness of others is apparent in babies. The ability to build empathy stems on people around them. Empathy is the building block of a social life.

Helen Demetriou

Empathy is intentional weaved into our learning environments as part of a conscious practice. Demetriou notes that building and fostering empathy, like authentic relationships, takes time. “Leading with the heart comes first,” shared Liz Tanner, our school’s founder and its first teacher. “We must always have a heart connection [relationship] with kids first, before we go to our heads [learning].” Liz was a staunch advocate that we must “take time to know each child” and recognize that “children don’t fit into [our] plan, [but rather] learning grows from working with [the child].” Sort of goes the old educator adage: I teach students, not content.

Liz emphasized the key to connection is quite obvious: that we must “love them all…[it is the] closest thing to prayer when we don’t ‘like’ a child.” And rather than look at this from the perspective of ‘that child just won’t learn’, Liz reminded us that developing an empathetic perspective with even the most challenging of learners “is an opportunity to grow ourselves and find the thing that isn’t working.” Ultimately, it is “our job [as educators] to take that child home in our hearts and find the way.” The lesson? “They [the connections] often become the most treasured experiences.”

When we as parents and teachers listen and respond appropriately to children, they respond appropriately back and thrive as people and as learners. Moreover, just as children learn from parents and teachers, so parents and teachers can learn from children.

Helen Demetriou

What does all of this mean for the learning process in our schools?

Liz recognized the need for time and space for learning to happen. For it to go deep and resonate. For true understanding. Perhaps it means that most of the time, Liz believed, that “our students are working at a small stretch [and some of the time] they will be asked to make big leaps, and some of the time they need to breathe deep and stay still to cement their understandings.” Empathy for ourselves and our learns really do to support those shifts, some subtly, other times not. We all learn best in supportive environments.

It’s the same for educators, I suppose.


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