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April 1, 2018
Vol. 75
No. 7

Principal Connection / Building Empathy in Schools

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In an era of rancor and polarization, let's foster empathy in our schools.

Instructional Strategies
I worry that we are losing the ability to disagree without being disagreeable. Sure, people have always had different beliefs, but in today's Balkanized climate it seems that positions harden quickly, and people aren't interested in understanding the perspectives of others. Too often we live in philosophical silos. Whenever there's a difference of opinion, people—adults and children—choose to interact with those who support and reinforce their biases.
This is apparent in the online interactions posted in response to newspaper articles and in the language used on political panels and talk radio. Too many people are quick to judge and even to call names. Our schools aren't immune to trends in society, and chances are that these rancorous attitudes have seeped into your school. It's probably obvious in both the student cafeteria and at faculty meetings.
We have no control over what is said in the media, but we cannot accept this tone in our schools. We need to create a school climate in which everyone consciously works to listen and understand others' perspectives. Doing this is about more than creating a pleasant environment; it's about teaching students what they will need to succeed. Yes, we must ensure that our graduates achieve scholastically, but that's not enough. Our students need to be prepared to succeed in life—and an important piece of that is the ability to work with and appreciate others. We could all benefit from greater empathy, and we should work to develop it in our schools.

Listening and Learning

Empathy is understanding and appreciating the perspectives of others. It's not just feeling sorry for someone or even working to help them. Empathy comes from listening and learning about others' situations and feelings in order to understand their perspectives. It's seeking to understand values and rationales, going beyond "What do they think?" to "Why do they think that?" Having empathy for others doesn't necessarily mean that you take their perspective; it does mean that you understand why they feel that way. And having empathy leads to caring.
Increasing empathy at your school begins with enlisting others who will become allies in change. Convene a small group of teachers and ask them if they see a need for greater empathy within your school community. I'm sure they'll see the need for this with their students, so you'll get agreement and support. Then, together, you can plan a professional development session that focuses on empathy.

Getting There

You might set aside time at a faculty meeting for such a session. Begin by distinguishing between empathy and sympathy. These similar words have quite different meanings; because having empathy involves working to appreciate others' thinking, it goes beyond having sympathy. Present a few controversial topics—such as implementing Common Core standards or assigning homework on weekends. Ask participants to think of three reasons that might be behind someone's support for or opposition to each practice. Then, in small groups, have people compare their speculations with the actual reasons given by those who hold supporting or opposing views. The goal (which you'll need to state and, likely, restate) isn't to change minds, but to offer a forum for folks to explain why they hold their beliefs—and for others to listen and learn.
Lead the faculty in a discussion about how this activity could be done with students. What topics would be relevant? You might also discuss ways to build empathy while delivering lessons. For example, in literature and history, teachers typically focus on events, plot, and protagonists. To develop empathy, we should also spend time investigating why people acted as they did. What factors determined Huckleberry Finn's values, or those of Augie Pullman's classmates in the novel Wonder? In history, learning about people wrongly accused of crimes and questioning what caused this scapegoating—such as studying the Salem witch trials—might be effective.
And consider community service activities, which some of your students may already do. If these activities are to foster empathy, they should lead students to learn about the causes for the adverse conditions their service is addressing, consider how the recipients might feel, and speculate on how students themselves might feel if the situations were reversed.

Devoting Time and Focus

It's important to allocate time for faculty to explore and develop their empathy. As I wrote in The Formative Five (ASCD, 2016), "We'll never be perfect, and neither will our students, but we do need to be role models—and we must model not only values and skills, but also the thoughtful and transparent pursuit of them." And it's important to explain your focus on empathy to students and parents so they can understand its value. Empathy should become part of everyone's vocabulary. Consider putting signs or reminders around the school to share the empathy work that's happening and why it's important. Or have a faculty committee look for evidence of students' empathy and somehow celebrate that evidence on the walls and in the halls of the school.
Reading together texts that address race and poverty in the U.S. can lead to empathy-fostering discussions. Among others, I recommend Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson (Speigel & Grau, 2014), Sing Unburied Sing by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2017), or You Don't Have to Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie (Hachette, 2017).
Finally, empathy begins with you. Take a few minutes to plan several ways you can communicate your empathy to students and the faculty. How can you visibly show that you've made efforts to learn what others are thinking and appreciate their perspectives? Can you share what you've learned that is helping you understand others? Doing this won't be easy. But increasing the empathy in your school is worth the effort.

Thomas R. Hoerr retired after leading the New City School in St. Louis, Missouri, for 34 years and is now the Emeritus Head of School. He teaches in the educational leadership program at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and holds a PhD from Washington University in St. Louis.

Hoerr has written six other books—Becoming a Multiple Intelligences School, The Art of School Leadership, School Leadership for the Future, Fostering Grit, The Formative Five, Taking Social-Emotional Learning Schoolwide—and more than 160 articles, including "The Principal Connection" column in Educational Leadership.

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