This story is a one of a two-part series on empathy curriculum. Read also: 3 Ways to Infuse Your Teaching with Empathy
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) has gained tremendous popularity around the U.S. in recent times, including teaching kids how to understand and share the feelings of another person. Teaching empathy doesn’t need to be a stand-alone lesson, it can be incorporated into all subjects. But as educators, we must walk the talk and model empathy and kindness in our interactions, not just talk about it in our lessons. Simply put, students will NOT buy into what you are selling if you don’t fully believe it yourself. Here are a few things about what it means, as a teacher, to incorporate empathy lessons into your teaching:
1. Teaching with empathy is a way to change the world.
When my principal approached me about looking into an empathy-based curriculum to pilot for our school, he was concerned people would see this as another thing added to our already overflowing plates. We often get handed top-down mandates and there is little to no buy-in from staff. Empathy doesn’t need a buy-in, it needs wholehearted belief.
Some may view this as an overly-optimistic idea, but it is true. Think of the things you are most passionate about. Maybe it is a hobby, your family, or teaching. Whatever it is, you likely wholeheartedly believe in it and the positive effect it can have on your world. This allows your passion to grow and you become an advocate of your passion. This can happen with teaching empathy in the classroom as well. Empathy should not be a set of instructions or a structured curriculum. It is not “one more thing I have to teach.” Teaching empathy is a way to change the world.
2. Teaching with empathy does not enable dependency.
A concern many teachers and parents share is how much we may be enabling a student’s inability to problem-solve on their own. While this may be true in many arenas, empathy should not be confused with enabling dependency. Showing students empathy for their problems, and giving them tools for solving them, is different than just excusing their problems. Teaching with and about empathy should give students more tools for problem-solving on their own.
For instance, I always tell students that I understand life happens, and they will sometimes be unable to complete assignments. I do, however, emphasize two points. First, I teach them the difference between reasons and excuses. Second, I set the expectation that they will have to present a solution to their problem (such as forgetting their homework) to me and we will come up with a plan together. Not surprisingly, this empathetic approach has decreased the amount of late and missing work.
3. Empathy can be taught across all subjects.
Empathy is not content-specific but can be used in everything you teach. Personally, I incorporate empathy into many math and literacy lessons with curriculum created by Better World Ed. This non-profit organization creates empathy challenges that incorporate grade-specific math concepts.
Further Reading: Stop Bullying by Creating a Strong Classroom Community
You can create your own empathy challenges by providing students real-world examples of the content you are covering. Bring experts to your classroom, read about current events as a class, travel the world with the help of google maps or other available software. Incorporate as much as you can from what you already have available. As a teacher, you and your students will grow from the learning experiences.