By Kristen Beland
I watched Sarah, one of my 5th graders, from twenty feet away as she and her classmates began to sing. She tried to look composed and was standing on her toes, looking out into the crowd, searching. A year before this school play one of her parents passed away. In the beginning of this school year her grief was well hidden, but as I looked at her now, I knew she was barely hanging on.
Some of our students’ needs are obvious; these students need to be academically challenged, require educational supports, or are fighting everyone around them. But it is also our job as teachers to notice subtle changes. All this time, Sarah has been hiding her hurt and anger. It’s easy to overlook students like Sarah, simply because she is not outwardly loud with her emotions. Students like her get lost in the crowd and we need to be careful not to let this happen.
As the anniversary of Sarah’s loss approached, her handwriting became erratic. She started coming to school with her hair uncombed. Bags appeared under her eye, and she stopped eating as often. She became short with friends and cranky with teachers. Every warning sign was there to prove she was having a hard time holding it together. Despite outward signs of normalcy, the school play was the breaking point.
After the play, Sarah ran into my arms sobbing. Openly in front of the class, she begged me to fix it and make the pain go away. Without any coaxing, the class came and formed a circle around us. They listened, reassured Sarah that they would be there for her, and shared their own losses. The students brought to her pure empathy.
Empathy, the ability to understand the feelings of another, is at the root of kindness and compassion, the character traits that must be nurtured from birth. Empathy is not an inherent trait and is fostered in children through consistent modeling from adults. Children are naturally, and developmentally, self-oriented. We as teachers have a responsibility to teach children why we must empathize.
Empathy is a powerful tool. A person who empathizes is forced to recall not only a memory, but the emotion they felt during the experience. Empathy is transformative and empowers people to rise above situations and become change agents. This is exactly what we want for our students: to be empowered to rise to their fullest potential, creatively problem-solve, and overcome challenges.
To bring this important life skill to fruition, we must bring it to the forefront of our classrooms. We cannot rely on social emotional programs alone, we must capture real-life and hands-on moments. We must build relational trust with our students from the first day of school and create a classroom culture that operates like a family.
Here are some strategies I use to bring empathy into my own classroom:
Creating a family: From the first day of school I make it known that the only way to ensure that everyone has a successful year is by listening, providing patience, and giving respect to others’ emotions. Like a family, we must support each other no matter what.
Modeling: Consistent modeling is a must and teachers are given a multitude of every day opportunities to do so. If you take the time to model compassion, you gain time teaching academics.
Literature: I embed SEL skills into my ELA lesson. As we study character, point of view, traits, plot, and theme we reflect on how the literature we read may compare to our own lives. We question what we would do, how we could change, and what must happen for positive growth.
The more open I am with my students, the more open they become not just with me, but each other. This trust, this openness, creates learning moments for empathy to be tried, and like any new skill, developed. If we all use our classroom culture as the driver’s seat for empathy, our students will have years of building a life skill.
Sarah knew as she sat on my lap and shared her emotions that she was surrounded by peers who were willing to try to understand her. Their empathy replaced her sadness with strength and hope. Empathy allowed her to move forward and start to heal.
Kristen Rhodes Beland is a 4th grade teacher at the Suzanne M. Henseler Quidnessett Elementary School in North Kingstown, RI and a Teach Plus Rhode Island Teaching Policy Fellowship alumna.