Empathy is a word that is making the rounds these days. Most people can agree on its importance as an idea and a way of being, but what does it mean exactly? How do we, as teachers, interact with our children, our colleagues, and our communities with empathy as a driving force? One question that helps us clarify this concept is, “Who does our classroom center around?” In other words, who designs the space? Who drives the curriculum? Who is the center of our interactions? Do we have a classroom that puts children first?
The “I Know, Me Too, Same Here” Text Conundrum
First a diversion into day-to-day life. I had a text interaction—you may have had similar ones—that forced me into reflecting about how we center (or don’t) our conversations on others. To protect the innocent, the participants in this exchange will be framed as Participant A and B.
Do you notice what happened? The conversation quickly re-centered around Participant B, even though Participant A initiated the need to be heard. Participant A never had a chance to talk it out. There is a name for this subtle move: conversational narcissism. It is (bold emphasis mine) “... the desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking, and to turn the focus of the exchange to yourself. It is often subtle and unconscious.” We might all want to say, “No! No! That’s not me!” but if we closely look back on past interactions, we might find that it can, sometimes, unintentionally be us.
Sociologist Charles Derber “... describes two kinds of responses in conversations: a shift response and a support response. The first shifts attention back to yourself and the second supports the other person’s comment.” What would that supportive language sound like?
• “Tell me more."
• “What happened?”
• “That sounds hard, what’s going on?”
Each of these moves keeps the focus on the one who initiated the conversation. This is harder to do than we may think. And if this is one of those subtle things we do without realizing it in our-day-to day conversation, then it is likely this is something happening day to day in our classrooms.
A Close Study of a Classroom Interaction
To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at a student-teacher interaction:
T: “Time to clean up so we can head to gym.”
S: “But I am not done yet!”
T: “Well, I have to take you to gym, so you will have to leave it.”
S: “Can’t I stay here to finish it?”
T: “No, I have a meeting to go to.”
S: “You don’t ever let me finish anything!!!!!!!!”
T: “I do let you finish things, I am just telling you that you cannot stay in this room alone when I am in a meeting.”
First, I’ve had 47,000,000 variations on this exchange in my teaching career.
So, what is wrong with it?
In this conversation, each statement I make is a shift towards me and my needs, away from the child and their needs. I am escalating the encounter as the child works harder and harder to make their need known and heard.
It doesn’t matter if, from our point of view, the need is rational or irrational…justified or silly…or conflicting with our needs. This child has a right to be heard.
Our point of view is not what we need to center in this moment. We need to center ourselves on the child and what they are expressing; to hear them and respond to them fully and completely, as we hope they will do to others. We need to hear the truth in what they express, however uncomfortable it makes us.
So in our cleaning-up example, the child may very well be right. Maybe we say kids can finish things but then we run out of the time to let them do so. Maybe we push our agenda over their agenda time and time again. Maybe we haven’t yet put the child first. So does this mean we skip our meeting and let the child stay in the room? No, not at all. Putting kids first doesn’t mean the absence of boundaries, and expectations, and places you have to go even if you don’t want to go there. Putting kids first means we center the conversation on the child to understand and hear them, so we can respond thoughtfully and with compassion, and with empathy.
Okay then, what can we do differently? How would this sound in “kids-first” language?
T: “Time to clean up so we can head to gym.” (There is an expectation and a boundary.)
S: “But I am not done yet!”
T: “Tell me more about that?” (This supports the child’s need.)
S: “I just started everything and now you are telling me I have to stop but I am not going to remember any of this!”
T: “I’m sorry to have to interrupt your work. What do you need to do to feel ready to leave?” (Expectation remains the same, but I validate and attempt to work with the child to solve the issue because I am hearing the issue.)
S: “Ummm. I need to cut and glue this on, and then write the labels for this part.”
T: “How about instead of cleaning up, you move it to the counter and make a list of the things you still need to get done? Would that work? That way you can still get to gym with the community.” (I offer a compromise that addresses the child’s valid concern instead of centering it over my issue; I ask for the child’s confirmation that this plan meets their concern)
S: “Okay, yeh.”
And if the child says, “You never let me finish things!”?
We have to take a moment to take a deep breath and hear the truth in that. We can say, “That’s true. Sometimes I do say you will have time later and then there is no time. I didn’t really think about that. Thank you for pointing that out to me. That is something I can try to be better at—giving you time when I say I will.”
Putting kids first does not mean that there is no expectation or difficulty in classrooms. It means that how we respond is different. In our actions, in our words, and in our conversational moves we demonstrate that we care for and value the children in our care, that we center on their needs, and support their growth.
Reflective Questions for the Kids-First Classroom:
- When I respond to others do I support what they have said (e.g. “Tell me more.”) or shift the focus on to me (e.g. “I know what you mean.)?
- Who leads conversations? Who changes the direction of the conversation? Children or the teacher?
- Do I assume truth and listen when children say things about the classroom or my teaching?
- Does my side of the conversation have primarily question marks?
One of the hardest parts of being a human is reflecting on when the impact of our actions has run afoul of our good-hearted intentions. As we strive to become the best versions of ourselves, in the classroom and out, we must sit with and learn from our impact. For those of us striving for a world with more empathy, it can begin with close listening and the simple phrase, “Tell me more about that.”
Join me along with ICLE thought leaders and 5,000 of your peers at the 26th Annual Model Schools Conference, June 24–27 in Orlando. You’ll be inspired by innovative strategies for strengthening your teaching and leadership practices, and will take away an action plan for positive change.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.