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6 Insights Into Creating a School Culture of Empathy

A convening of five schools last week yielded these tips on cultivating empathy in your school.

By Laura Zax

July 31, 2012

At the end of last week, the StartEmpathy team gathered together educators from Mission Hill School, Lake Forest Park School, the Center for Inspired Teaching Demonstration School, Georgetown Day School, and Prospect Sierra School--five elementary schools committed to a vision of a different kind of education.  Though there was plenty that the schools didn't have in common--they hailed from four different cities on two coasts and represented the gamut of educational models, from public schools, to public charter schools, to public pilot schools, to independent schools--they all shared a vision of transforming education from an experience in which young people are passive receptacles of knowledge and rules to one in which they are active agents of their own experiences. 

The agenda? To talk about what empathy education looks like in theses educators’ classrooms and hallways, to share what’s working and what’s not working, and to articulate a shared vsion of a "Changemaker School."  Here are six takeaways from the event: 

SEEING IS BELIEVING:  Empathy’s abstract, but watch it in action and empathy sells itself.  The educators in the room repeatedly emphasized the importance of making empathy education concrete by creating opportunities to actually see it—whether that means with visits to model empathy classrooms or with videos of model empathy educators doing what they do best.

EMPHASIZE WHAT’S THERE, NOT WHAT’S MISSING: Every year, more and more is piled onto teachers’ plates, yet those plates aren’t getting any bigger.  It’s important not to frame empathy education as yet another initiative.  Instead, highlight the ways in which your school and your staff are already cultivating empathy: not through “empathy class,” but instead by forging powerful relationships based on mutual understanding between students and adults in every classroom, and across the entire culture.  By making the implicit explicit, and articulating its importance, educators become more self-aware of the ways in which they’re getting empathy education right and the ways in which they could improve.

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MAKE CHANGEMAKER MAKERS: A successful Changemaker School is one in which teachers—not just students—are empowered to step into their biggest selves, to see themselves in a new light, to work collaboratively and feel agency, and to identify as changemaker makers.

START SMALL, KEEP IT SIMPLE: The long-term vision of a world where every child masters empathy is inspiring—but it’s hard for a busy educator with a long to-do list and class full of students to swallow.  Empathy education has to be delivered in digestible nuggets—exercises and activities for the classroom, for instance, or bite-sized videos of a teacher helping a student take on another’s perspective. There will always be evidence-based programs and rigorous professional development for those wishing to go deeper, but effectively cultivating empathy doesn’t require a huge resource or time expenditure: it’s ultimately about helping teachers to approach every interaction with students with a different lens. 

THROW OUT THE COOKIE CUTTER: There’s no toolkit, no “one-size fits all” for empathy education.  It’s bound up in the identity of each school, and each school has its own unique identity.  You can look to others for inspiration, but at the end of the day you have to create your own best practices.

EMPATHY IS A MEANS:  Empathy is an educational process, not an educational end-goal.  What’s more, though there’s evidence that empathy is a means to the traditional educational “ends” of better test scores and admission to college, it is, more importantly, a means towards creating lifelong learners who are better problem solvers and, ultimately, better people.