In a world where so much injustice is being brought to light, how might we as educators and leaders, teach our students compassion and empathy?
When writing an article for The New York Times, R.J. Palacio said, “The tricky part about teaching empathy to children, is that you can't really teach it. You can only inspire it.” Someone can’t think about how they are hurting others if they can't first practice empathy. I would argue that empathy is one of the most important skills we can instill in our students because with empathy our students hearts will be softer toward others and I believe that is where real change starts.
This summer when reading, The End of Average by Todd Ross for the Innovation in Teaching Fellowship I renewed my passion for teaching the whole student, as they are, and not just the data and intellectual part of the student. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.” After some honest reflection, I realized that the character part of learning was largely absent in my classroom. I asked myself, “If I can't teach empathy to my students, how can I inspire it?” I then set out this year to introduce books that would, hopefully, bring about empathy in an organic way.
I realize that most people, adults even, do not know anything of life other than what we have experienced ourselves. This is an obstacle when it comes to compassion and empathy. We can’t understand things like prejudice, sexism, or abuse unless we have experienced it, so we can't truly “feel for” those who are currently experiencing these struggles, and isn’t feeling for others the definition of empathy?
As a result of these revelations we started out our year reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio as a class. Some people might think reading aloud to 5th graders has no merit, but I find being able to start the year by sharing the experience and allowing them to hear a fluent reader and model how to think through and reason with the text invaluable. I specifically chose to share the book Wonder because its overarching theme is kindness and the main character is in 5th grade. I hoped this would solicit empathy toward their classmates.
Through books, we can not only visit exotic places, but we can also get a peek into what our neighbor’s life is like day to day. Books allow us to experience things outside of our own “bubble” and I am constantly amazed at my 5th grade student’s ability to “put themselves in someone else's shoes” and see things in a new light.
So, let's work together as educators, not only to raise a generation of empathetic, compassionate humans, but to open our own minds to other realities, and show empathy ourselves by diving into diverse literature today. Afterall, you can't teach empathy but you can inspire it.