An Exercise to Empower Students with Empathy
Events unfolding over the past year have forced us to find new ways to empathize with those around us, including with our students.
The foundation of empathy in the classroom begins with validation. If a student shares how they feel with their teacher, it might be because their feelings aren't welcome anywhere else. Or maybe, the teacher is the person they feel the most comfortable with. Sometimes, it's not about offering advice. Sometimes, what a student in the midst of strife needs the most is a listening ear; acknowledgment is one of the most important components of empathy.
While a teacher may not have gone through a student's situation specifically, understanding their background and knowing their experiences will help them to step into their shoes. An empathy exercise forms the foundation of one ESI Substitute's annual classroom ritual.
Sometimes, what a student in the midst of strife needs the most is a listening ear...
Dawnette Turner is a long-term substitute teacher in the Littleton school district in the West Valley. Originally from Vermont, she spent more than 21 years in the Air Force before retiring and switching her lens to focus on something entirely different - teaching 8th-grade science.
Dawnette is the first to admit that academics weren't her strength when she was in school. Not because she lacked intelligence, but because she was more interested in activities outside the classroom – so she knows how tempting it is for her kids to put off school-related tasks. While in eighth grade, her senior year seemed like a lifetime away. But any graduate knows that's not the case; time flies faster in high school than any other period of life.
Much like Dawnette at their age, her students have a hard time seeing the big picture. She is intent on pushing the mindset that in eighth grade, it matters what you do – every single day.
"They don't realize that, you know, they're there that time from eighth grade to when they graduate is very, very short time. And everything just seems so much more important to them than their education…"
In My Shoes Lesson
Every year, Dawnette does an exercise with her eighth-graders that centers around bullying, called "If You Were In My Shoes." It begins with a shoe print on a piece of paper - that's it. Inside the footprint, students fill in how Dawnette would feel "if she were in their shoes" as a 14-year-old. She says, even students who walked in the classroom hating each other, have walked out hand-in-hand. It's both an empowering and enlightening experience.
Dawnette takes the papers home, reads them, and responds if the students request her to do so. It often takes her a few weeks to process, because many times, the content gets heavy. But while it's heavy, it also allows students to hear from someone who has seen more years than they have and allows someone like Dawnette to better understand the kids she's spending much of her day with. For the kids, it's not always easy to hear such advice from a parent, but from a teacher, it may come easier.
The exercise is pertinent throughout the year when conflict arises. It's helpful for the eighth graders to call back to when they filled their shoe print and realized that everyone else in the class filled their own up, too - and none of them truly know what it's like to walk in the other's footsteps. It allows a bit of clarity on the students' parts when they don't see eye-to-eye and sparks more compassion throughout the classroom.
"And I think the more honest, and the more real you are with them, the more that they're going to listen. And the more analogies are real, real world situations you give them because they always want to know, well, why do I need to know?..."
There are three core values to live by in Dawnette's classroom:
It's necessary for teachers to not only realize when they're wrong but also recognize it in front of their students as well. By doing this, they're not only acknowledging their students as human beings but building normalcy around the concept of being wrong. And in an environment where humility is appreciated, apologies are equally as important.
Just because a teacher holds a position of power doesn't mean that they're always right. It's not up to them to change the narrative of a situation or flip the script. They shouldn't hold themselves superior to their students simply because they can.
By utilizing honesty, respect, and trust, the relationship between teacher and students will be symbiotic and smooth. Sometimes teachers don't realize the impact they can have over their students' lives. Sometimes, we all could use a little compassion and understanding and see what it's like to step into someone else's shoes.
"At the beginning of the year, I have three things. You know, we have where make your day school. That's our discipline. But I have three rules in my class. One is honesty. One is respect…."
"Definitely their relationships. I don't want to use those cliches of, you know, it's just, I learned so much from the kids as I hope they learn from me..."