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Teacher and Students around table//Source: Creative Commons, woodleywonderworks

Insights from the Classroom

Inspired Teaching School's administrators and staff share tips for cultivating empathy in the classroom.

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.

January 28, 2013

Cultivating empathy in students was clearly an important topic to eduactors at this past weekend's EduCon conference in Philadelphia, PA. At the first session on Saturday morning, over 50 educators packed into a high school Spanish room to learn about teaching empathy from Inspired Teaching School’s Zoe Duskin, Athena Kopsidas, Kate Keplinger, Benjamin Frazell, and Rebecca Schmidt. The best practices shared by the Inspired Teaching team would serve as a starting point for all of the other educators in the room to identify the ways they build their students' empathic skills.

One of the most popular takeaways from the Inspired Teaching team was the recognition that schools had to have empathy for teachers in order for teachers to instill empathy in their students. In schools where there is a lot of pressure for teachers to perform without much emotional support, understanding, or trust, teachers struggle to overcome their own stress and build the nurturing relationships that students need for success. As one teacher at the session said, “How can I have empathy for my students when no one will have empathy for me?”

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The Inspired Teaching School's teachers developed an interesting professional development response to the need for educators to feel empathy from others. The staff meets on a regular basis, and they open their meetings with a sharing circle: sitting in a circle, they take turns sharing how their weeks are going. This builds personal relationships and helps teachers recognize that their colleagues care about how everyone is feeling.

Another popular idea that the Inspired Teaching team shared was the concept of “Changemaker Days.” Ms. Kopsidas, Mr. Frazell, and Ms. Schmidt each shared how Changemaker Day has impacted their students so far this year (you can read more about Mr. Frazell’s Changemaker Day class project here and Ms. Kopsidas’s Changemaker Day class project here). For example, Ms. Schmidt’s 4th grade class is the oldest grade in the school, so they took it upon themselves to create reminders for the younger grades about how to treat one another well. Through this project, the students were able to see themselves as leaders and role models for the students in the younger grades.

The rest of the session was filled with best practices from other teachers across the country who have found ways to cultivate empathy in their students, from pre-kindergarten to senior year of high school. By sharing the insights and best practices from teachers like the Inspired Teaching Team and the EduCon attendees, we hope to break down the science of how all teachers can cultivate empathy and changemaker skills in students.