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Lessons from a “Hero in the Classroom”

An award-winning teacher shares why and how to cultivate empathy.

By Laura White

In May 2012, Laura graduated from Tulane University with a B.A. in Political Economy. While at Tulane, Laura brought her Youth Venture project, Swim 4 Success, to New Orleans, LA, and was a founding member of Tulane’s Ashoka U Changemaker Campus team. As a member of the Empathy Initiative, Laura manages the Changemaker Schools network, a group of schools that have given empathy as much priority as math and literacy. Laura is passionate about changemaker education, empathy, and transforming early childhood education.

February 11, 2013

The Seahawks may have not gone to the Super Bowl, but Seattle is still home to the biggest champions of all: teachers like Laurie Pearson. Pearson, one of the change leaders at Changemaker School Lake Forest Park Elementary, recently received the “Hero in the Classroom Award,” which is sponsored by Symetra and the Seattle Seahawks.

Pearson’s nominators were two parents, whose three children were so profoundly influenced by Pearson, who teaches kindergarten, that the nominators were still seeing Pearson’s impact when their children were in fifth, third, and second grades. Although they did mention their children’s academic growth under Pearson’s care, the bulk of the nomination described how Pearson made the children feel. As one of the parents wrote in the application:

“A child enters Laurie Pearson's classroom as a 5-year-old and leaves as an amazing student and citizen,” a parent wrote in nominating her for the award. “Students learn to work together using the skills of cooperation, flexibility, organization, responsibility, friendship and patience. At the same time they learn to advance themselves individually by being curious, putting forth effort, showing initiative and common sense and being proud of accomplishments and the integrity of their efforts.” (Quote from Shoreline Public Schools).

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How does Pearson have such a positive lasting impact on students? To find out, Start Empathy asked Pearson what advice she gives other teachers. Her response was to take the time to build community and a positive classroom environment:

“My biggest piece of advice is to give community-building the time it needs at the beginning of the school year. I spend a lot of time creating community and involving kids in creating the classroom environment. We talk about what kind of environment they want to work and learn in. I also frame behavior in a positive way – I use the theme of bees to talk about “bee-havior,” and the students brainstorm ways that we want to be in our community. We keep it short and sweet. This year we used 'be kind, polite, safe, and good listeners.' Then we talk about what these look like and mean. We spend a lot of time on this, and then we all sign an agreement together, which I send home to families. I ask for their support and encouragement.”

Pearson builds off this strong foundation to infuse empathy as part of the culture in her classroom. For example, she plans her literacy and classroom activities to address empathy and life skills. Pearson’s class also participates in Roots of Empathy. However, according to Pearson, the many small but deliberate actions she takes to show students they're cared for are perhaps the most important parts of her success. As Pearson told Start Empathy:

“Sometimes it's the little things that last a lifetime. I have the privilege of having the very first room in the school, so I stand by and greet students, patting them on the back, giving them a hug, or if they’re upset, seeing if there is something I can do. I realized again after the award that these actions mean a lot to the students, and sometimes we [adults] forget that. It was a good reminder for me to think about the little things and how much they really matter. The beauty is that any teacher or any person can do this.”

By doing the little things to care for our children and for each other, we can all start down the road to becoming champions.

Photo courtesy of http://sabbah.biz/mt/archives/2007/02/22/project-know-more/.