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.

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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:

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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.