Sometimes, it might seem like we live in a world that lacks empathy. If you’re a high school or middle school teacher, you may have noticed that teenagers and young adults are especially susceptible. It’s normal for teens to be self-focused. They’re growing into adults, trying to figure life out, and often are seeking the approval of the people who matter to them. And it would certainly be wrong to make a statement that kids today just don’t have empathy, because that’s not true, and likely as an educator you see evidence of good every day. But as kids are increasingly faced with challenging circumstances at home, scary things on the world scene, and a flood of self-focused media and humor that belittles others, some may begin to lose the connection between their own feelings and the feelings of others. You may wonder how to teach empathy, especially to older students, amidst all of these challenges. But why should you consider teaching empathy at all?
Empathy is essential. It helps us to have successful human relationships, it makes us happier, and it affects everyone around us, especially when it comes to the decisions we make. Think about the current COVD-19 crisis. A lack of empathy has led some to disregard warnings and continue to socialize, meet in large groups, and travel. As a result, many others have been exposed to the virus. The impact of our decisions matter. Sometimes, it’s not about us, and that’s what empathy can help us put into practice.
This post isn’t going to look at a certain number of ways to teach empathy in the classroom, but rather on one big way: teach empathy by example. We understand that currently, most teachers are not physically in the classroom, but these are practices that can be done no matter where you are. And now, more than ever, learning to show empathy is important. In the grips of a global crisis, helping students learn empathy will help them fight loneliness and anxiety. In addition, students especially need to feel understood and cared about during this time.
We all want to be treated empathetically, to be understood and appreciated. We want to be seen. So why would students feel any different? Whether they’re in Pre-K or high school, they’re people, with real-people feelings. In fact, they carry intense feelings and a need to feel valued at a level we don’t quite experience as adults. And for teens growing into adults, meeting these needs and helping them to learn how to relate to others around them is crucial.
How can you model empathy? It might take some work. We may know some people who seem naturally empathetic, but that’s not true for all of us. We may have a short fuse, have a tendency towards sharp sarcasm, or like to feel important. These are just human things. Working to overcome these, to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, takes a lot of effort, practice even. The good news is, empathy can be learned. Maybe a first step towards teaching empathy could be acknowledging your struggles with it to your students.
Communicate your feelings
Empathy is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.” Helping your students to understand and share your own feelings is a great place to start. Saying “Right now I’m trying to be more patient when I’m teaching” or “I want to respond more kindly when I’m frustrated by someone” creates transparency. It shows students that you’re trying to be better and that you care about how you make them feel. They may share similar struggles — or even offer you suggestions. This kind of open communication about managing and understanding emotions can be done in any grade level, and in any subject matter.
You can also show empathy by how you react to behavioral issues. When a student acts out in class, as a teacher you want to regain control of the situation. A natural response may be to raise your voice or send them out of the classroom. You want to maintain order and let your expectations be known. But consider the approach of teacher David Greensdale, who actually uses empathy as a classroom management tool. When a student is disruptive, he doesn’t just react for the sake of enforcing his authority. He lets his students know how their behavior makes him feel. He says, ” learned that by honestly stating my feelings—not out of spite, but out of a desire to be understood—and asking for collaboration instead of giving an order, I could empower students to take ownership of their actions and create a plan for how to improve classroom dynamics.” Read more about his approach here.
Get students talking about their feelings
And you could take it beyond that as well. When a student acts out often it’s because they’re unhappy or struggling with something that you can’t see. So maybe, when you have time to take them aside, just ask them if they’re ok. Show that you care. And then, listen to the response. Try to sincerely understand their feelings. When they sense that this is genuine, it will improve the relationship, and help them to understand their own feelings as well, and that how they act on those feelings affects you.
Other teachers find it beneficial to weave empathetic thinking into their teaching. A great way to do this is by considering point of view. It could be in a history lesson, trying to get students to put themselves in the place of people they’re learning about, or in a Language Arts class, people that they’re reading about. What words does the person use to express themself? Could they compare it to someone they know, or something they themselves have felt? Books, movies, music, poetry and other forms of art are a great way for students to learn about the feelings of others, and how it connects to their own.
Empathy > personal achievement
In a self-focused world that often prizes personal achievement at the expense of anything else, learning how to teach empathy, and even how to show it, can be difficult. For middle and high school students, it might mean standing out from the crowd sometimes. But the benefits far outweigh the challenges. Showing empathy will help students feel better about themselves, have better relationships with their peers and others right now. In the future, it will help them become adults that will be well-equipped emotionally and socially. It is more important than the grades they get, the things they know or accomplish academically. And right now if you’re teaching virtually, empathy should inform everything you do with your students and what you expect of them, as well as how you view yourself. Take the time you need to cope with what’s going on, and process your own emotions. Breathe, and take it one day (or moment) at a time.