Empathy & Engagement: finding light in the darkness

“She’s just…gone,” she said to me, and I felt her energy–a sadness fueled by intense empathy–and I empathized in return.  So many feelings–pride that we have teachers like her who stop into the office before 8 a.m. to check on students’ well being, sadness that we have students who surf couches and show up hungry, hesitation in my response as I tried to remain open to her tears and find words to fill the space where there were none to reassure.

Empathy is powerful.  It can lay you flat out if you let it, and it did that to me today.  There were tears, those I usually keep boxed up in a tight container, that flowed freely out the sides.  I let myself truly feel for others, and yes, it hurt.  And in our current political climate, I find myself drawn back to empathy time and again, trying to make sense of things I do not understand.

IMG_6425

I don’t understand why some students must find ways to ask if we might have some food to spare–using humor, usually–because they struggle to quiet rumbles of hunger.  I don’t understand why students have to live in unhealthy circumstances beyond their control at home, and then come to schools where their voices are rarely heard there either.  I don’t understand why some teachers find it so difficult to build real relationships with students.

 

In tandem with the scant hours of fall daylight, there is darkness in school.  But in this darkness, I seek the bright spots.  One to note:

we have shifted our priorities this year to make time for things that matter,

one of them being time for students to explore personal interests.  On Thursdays, students participate in a 45-minute workshop designed expressly for discovery and exploration.  Here’s what some of them had to say about the experience:

Screen Shot 2018-11-01 at 8.31.18 PM

Encouraging, right?  Vermont says we must personalize learning, and so we create a schedule in partnership with students that prioritizes time for them to explore passions.  In some instances, it becomes the highlight of their week.  It has other unintended and serendipitous consequences: students create new friendships based on common interests; they feel valued and mitigate their stress; they discover new interests that inspire them.

In short, we strengthen culture.IMG_1217

Empathy requires that you feel, and that’s scary for some (including me).  Without it though, we find ourselves in tragic situations.  I believe our schools should be places of comfort, inspiration, and belonging.  Connecting with students, personalizing the school experience, valuing their voice…they aren’t extras.  They’re the very foundation upon which we build strong schools, and it’s time we prioritize these shifts.  We live in a world where school isn’t just school anymore; it’s the therapist’s office, the doctor, the parent, the family.

Let’s embrace what empathy can teach us about becoming the teachers that students need us to be in this present moment.

 

 

Hypocrisy 1; Equity 0: epic parenting dilemma

So my own hypocrisy smacked me in the face today.  Hard.  And I have to come clean if I’m to have a prayer of working through the existential crisis that’s unfolded in the last 24 hours.

I thought that one of my core beliefs centered around equity : all students deserve access to opportunity.

But when push came to shove for me last night, I failed as a human for what I tell myself was a trade-off as a mother.  I chose to advocate for separation instead of for equity in hopes of sheltering my child from exposure to what I perceived as a possibly harmful environment.  Maybe my child felt better in the short term, but what have I taught him for the long haul?

volkan-olmez-523-unsplash

Everybody struggles.  I’m struggling with this.  I’m looking at my own background, remembering my roots and considering how they shape my current reactions.  The daughter of a truck driver, I grew up with a father who freely embraced the f-bomb as every part of speech (and in just about every sentence).  Sidesplittingly funny with strong views on everything from politics to the Yankees, his language always threw me.  Language was at the heart of my discomfort in both of these situations–listening to my father and the potential for that kind of language to surround my son for four nights.   I’m all design thinking and empathy in school, but I didn’t honor that here.

But what if…it didn’t look like that?

What if my son had the opportunity to build bridges instead of be sheltered?  What if he learned some empathy himself?  Might there have been long-lasting positive effects?

When does fighting for equity outweigh concerns as a parent?  

Does it?

 

 

Photo credit: Volkan Olmez (Unsplash)

 

 

School change: building blocks to #empathy

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about school change and how best to make it happen: hours in meetings talking about how to inspire, talking others down from the ledge as they became so easily mired in pessimism, sometimes finding myself marveling at the problem as opposed to seeking out solutions.  It’s easier to say you can’t do anything because of X, Y, Z than to actually take steps to make change.  And it’s true that sometimes even when you spend countless hours trying to make systemic change, it fails.

Michael Fullan, the Heath brothers, and Dan Pink have all written at length about change and its one primary, deciding factor: motivation.  In “Change Theory: A force for school improvement,” Fullan writes, “If one’s theory of action does not motivate people to put in the effort–individually and collectively–that is necessary to get results, improvement is not possible” (8).  Interesting that he draws attention to the fact that change cannot beget results if only accomplished individually.  I have learned this lesson time and again as I carefully constructed the isolated island of a classroom teacher, head down, wading through the bull in an effort to create the best experiences for my students.  By the time I met with my colleagues at the end of the day to talk about standards, common assessments, or whatever other initiative was coming down the pike, I was spent and ready to watch some ridiculous Jib Jabs, not so much do heavy thinking on how best to align ourselves for the betterment of our students.

img_1217
Stanford d.school’s form of inspiration

This idea of a culture shift–noted by both the Heath brothers and Fullan–is one that the Rowland foundation has likewise esteemed, and I recognize that shift as the ultimate goal.  So let’s talk about some small steps to get there, taking my call for empathy as the impetus.  I will attempt to build capacity through students first–Fullan’s second premise of the change theory.  Check out my Powtoon for my plan of action–one I hope will result in a move toward better understanding the world in which we live.

 

I will report out (share widely!) what our students propose, and how their ideas play out at our school.  I’d love to hear your ideas as well, and if you’d like to partner with us in this venture.  Authentic audiences, global connections around issues important to our students, and a lasting understanding of what technology can do to build empathy are all worthy goals for this venture.  Please join us!

Resources:

Fullan, Michael. Change Theory: A Force for School Improvement. Jolimont, Vic.: CSE Centre for Strategic Education, 2006. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. London: Random House Business, 2011. Print.

Pink, Daniel H. Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010. Print.

“Rowland Foundation Vermont Secondary School Teacher’s Fellowship Philosophy.” Rowland Foundation Vermont Secondary School Teacher’s Fellowship Philosophy. The Rowland Foundation, n.d. Web. 7 Feb. 2017.