This blog post is part of the CM Rubin World Global Search for Education which poses a question each month to leading educators for reflection and sharing. This month’s question is “how do we cultivate empathy in our students? What role do educators play in creating kind and compassionate students?”
Shortly after Christmas, a new student registered and was placed in my freshmen English class. He was quiet, spoke broken English, and wore the face of a person twice his age. Burim, along with his mother and sister, fled the war-torn Bosnia in search of a better place to live. One without bombs, death, and violence; and he, fortunately for all of us, ended up in small-town Iowa. His classmates had no insight into the life that Burim has called normal for the past fifteen years. They woke up in peaceful homes with food on the table before they left in their new car to travel the 5 miles to school. As a teacher, I struggled to find the best way for classroom relationships to form between the refugee and the midwestern students. I didn’t want them to have sympathy for Burim, feeling bad that he witnessed his brother killed before his eyes, avoiding bullets and bombs as he protected his mother at a young age; instead, I wanted the students to have empathy for our new classmate. I wanted them to feel WITH Burim.
“I want students who are not only best in the world, but best FOR the world,” (Erin Olson). The average person spends around 15% of their life in school from grades K-12, that’s about 12 years of teachers, classrooms, learning, and tests. But school is far more than content, learning involves the development of the whole child and as teachers are charged with a hefty task when you consider the quote above. Not only are we charged with educating kids in the areas of literacy, math, and science; but also developing the EQ skills needed to create productive adults and compassionate citizens.
As a literacy teacher, I cultivated compassion in the classroom, for Burim and others, through reading and writing. Storytelling allows students to socially construct feelings and emotions that allow us to feel WITH a person (empathy) not just for a person (sympathy). Empathy and storytelling transport us to another person’s reality, allows us to understand their perspective, and recognize and communicate these emotions. There are endless lists of books for all ages that educators can use in the classroom to cultivate empathy (Great one from Common Sense found here). Technology also affords us a digital form of storytelling through images and video.
Media Literacy has provided new modes for students to construct an understanding of emotions and experiences from people far different from themselves. This ultra-connected age we are living in brings opportunity to foster empathy not only for those close to us but on a global level. Combining the elements of visual, audio, design, images and video are powerful ways for students to empathize with others. It sparks discussion and action. As educators, we can utilize media as a way cultivate the whole child and foster compassionate and empathetic citizens of the world!
5 Videos that Foster Empathy
(This one was created by former students of mine, moved by empathy, wanting to make a difference)
Finally, 16 interactive images which show the realities of children. (Click on the background of each photo)
Cultivating empathy is part of an educator’s job. There is no test to measure progress or a set curriculum to determine what is taught. Instead, empathy is fostered through modeling, discussions, reading, writing, and creating. And like most things that aren’t measurable on a standardized test, empathy is more important in life and directly impacts the society in which we live!
I love when people share additional resources with me! Here are more videos to consider