Editor's Note: This letter comes from Kathy Clunis D'Andrea, Change Leader at the Mission Hill School in Boston, MA, one of Start Empathy's inaugural Changemaker Schools -- also known as "The Dream School You Didn't Think Existed." You can read more about Kathy here and watch a short video about her here.
Dear new friends and old friends,
Fifteen years ago I had my first day as a new teacher. I was filled with excitement and anxiety. I had been given an opportunity to do not only what I loved but also what I had been studying for. I felt prepared.
Little did I know that I would be learning just as much as my students that year. I often thought to myself, “They are going to find out I don’t know everything, and they are going to fire me.”
Fortunately for me, they knew I didn’t know everything, and they hired me anyway. I feel very lucky to have started my career in a place that embraced me as a new teacher. The community gave me suggestions of practice they knew worked well, but they also gave me space to trust myself and apply theory and practice in a way that worked for my learning community.
Building a strong community has always been a priority at my school. We talk about it in staff meetings. We discuss community with the children in our classes. And we seek advice from people who have been looking really closely at building a climate of trust among us all.
Over the last ten years I have seen an alarming trend among my students. More and more students are arriving on the first day of school already deciding they are not learners and that school is not a place for them. The causes of this can certainly be debated. I have found that building a climate of trust has to be my top priority. The students learn that I trust them to be kind, loving, and intelligent. And they are learning to trust that I will think of them that way. We learn to trust each other.
With this trust comes an opening that I have found to be the real foundation on to which our year can begin. When we learn to trust each other, we are then open to care for one another. We are able to help each other if we fall. We are able to offer advice for academic growth, if wanted, and we are able to use our voices to make change. When children first start to use their voices in the classroom, it provides for a test as to how they may be received. Will they be listened to? Will they be laughed at? Are they important?
For me, empathy is at the heart of all I do. It is no longer something to be thought of as an add-on in our classrooms. Rather, it should be looked at as the work that we do that allows learning to happen. To be a changemaker in this world you need empathy. Empathy allows us to say, “Wait a minute, something isn’t right here.” Empathy allows us to move our thoughts from, “That’s too bad” to “We need to do something about this.”
In order to create a world full of changemakers we need to help children feel they can make change. Empathy is the vehicle for this success. Will you join me in helping to ensure that every child feels they have a voice and that their voices are worth hearing? I look forward to working with you and hearing your stories.
Kathy Clunis D’Andrea