Communication, Empathy

More Thoughts on Empathy…

Last week, I was telling a fellow Masters student the story of my first year teaching in Munich. I was a new mom to a 10 week old baby when I started work at MIS. My husband would bring her to work so I could feed her and occasionally this would mean one or two kids would see her on her way in or out.

Until the day she stayed to say her ‘official’ hello a few weeks into the school year.

My little Lulu at 12 weeks old, visiting with Papa at school.

My class of 18 4th graders were enthralled. So much care and concern was shown for her: was she warm enough? was it quiet enough? did she have enough personal space? did she need anything? how could they help her? This was quite different to the way they treated each other upon arrival to fourth grade. About a third were with classmates from the previous year. A third were new to the school. The other third were returning students but hadn’t been in the same class before. They didn’t show this same concern for each other.

When I asked them why, their answers were quick to come: “She isn’t going to make fun of me.  She isn’t going to be mean to me. She can’t talk back to me. I have to think about what she needs rather than what I want.”

It seems children are naturally empathetic, yet something drives that deeper within them to the point where it is not always their first response. Until it is. Until empathy is the first and only option.

So, why not tap into that as a basis for all that we do in the classroom?  I am a big fan of “starting with why” but I am becoming a bigger fan of “starting with empathy”. I really think that when kids are given the task to think of what they can do for another person/place/situation, the learning will flow from that.  Maybe that is idealistic but I don’t actually think so. I think it will work.

This following video talks about what empathy is but also how to start on a journey toward building empathy through the exchanging of stories. In particular, it highlights the importance of listening – really listening – as others tell their story, which is a key feature of empathy in the Design Thinking process.


I like this RSA animated short from Brené Brown on Empathy (which is actually referenced by one of the participants in the previous video). She describes empathy as making a connection with another by examining yourself first. I like this idea: that we each have to look to our own experiences first.

This last video was created by 8th grade students. Again, I think it highlights the idea that empathy is naturally present in the children we teach, we just have to place importance on it. The social issues that exist in many schools are a result of a lack of empathy for each other. If empathy was naturally a driving force in everything ‘school’, wouldn’t this also change the social culture of school?

What role does empathy play in your teaching?

4 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Empathy…”

  1. For me Empathy is a crucial ingredient to teaching and learning. It’s a part of the bridge that builds a relationship. The relationship provides a shared perspective or common understanding between teacher and student that can act as a foundation on which you can build almost anything. It’s about understanding and caring, and if you don’t have either of those in your practice you might need to do some reflecting:)


    1. I agree: “foundation on which you can build almost anything”. Perhaps empathy is perceived by some as a soft skill and only a social concern but I believe it can be the ground for academic growth and innovation just as easily.

  2. Brene’s work needs to be embraced by more teachers. Rooted within empathy are it’s close allies, vulnerability and courage. These three combine in helping to develop a genuine culture of caring within our learning spaces. Examining our own experiences is a great starting point for fostering more self-compassion in our lives. A skill that many adults fail to be able to put into practice in their own lives, despite trying to teach it to kids.

    As you say Sonya, if empathy was the driving force in every school, wouldn’t it change the social culture of school. I couldn’t agree more. It’s time more schools step up to the plate and do what’s right, instead of just talking about it.

    1. I agree with what you are saying. The more I read though, the more empathy stands out as MORE than just a social necessity in our schools. It should (and could!) permeate in all that we do. Think about sportsmanship in PE (the NZ Cricket team spring to mind!) but also the way in which kids are asked to solve problems with empathy as the driving force. I think it could (and should!) be massively powerful.

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