Politics in the Classroom: Teach Empathy in Turbulent Times

When I started teaching more than 25 years ago, the world was a different place. Teaching has always required not only a knowledge of content and pedagogy but also a passion for teaching the whole child. 

Ensuring that students felt safe, were practicing healthy living, and were showing respect for themselves and others was just as important as academics. The world we live in now is much more complex, and the turbulence in our society requires that educators prioritize teaching students to be empathetic.

Empathy should be our response to the loss of civility in political discourse and the daily signs of hatred witnessed in the U.S. and abroad. Schools have always been asked to teach competencies and skills that may not be taught or modeled at home or in society. Teaching what is in contrast to what students see, hear, and experience outside of school can be a challenge. 

However, students don’t leave their anxiety and concern at the school’s front door. They have questions, and their words and actions oftentimes reflect what they witness and experience outside of school. In some cases, students have not formed their own opinions, nor are their ideas well-informed by fact. This is the epitome of a teachable moment. However, not every educator is comfortable teaching politics and other controversial topics and therefore may avoid them completely. There is another solution.

Prioritize Empathy

CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, has defined five competency areas that guide teaching the heart as well as the mind and helps students navigate the world more effectively. One of the core competencies is social awareness. CASEL defines social awareness as the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.  

In a study of empathy among American teens, a decline of 40 percent was recorded compared with three decades ago. A lack of empathy can cause students to be more aggressive and narcissistic, to distrust, and in some cases, to demonstrate bullying behaviors.  While we have raised academic expectations and are graduating far more students than 30 years ago, we must strike a balance and focus on the social and emotional needs of our students as well. 

According to a 2011 meta-analysis of 213 studies and more than 270,000 students who participated in evidence-based social-emotional learning, students demonstrated an 11 percentile-point gain in academic achievement compared with students who were not provided the same opportunity. Teaching in turbulent times makes the choice clear. We must prioritize empathy as we seize these teachable moments and guide students through considering other perspectives, appreciating diversity, and developing respect for others.

Teach Empathy

Empathy is not the same as sympathy. Empathy is the ability to understand others’ feelings and needs and can serve as the foundation of an inclusive learning environment. It is not taught through a program; rather, empathy is taught, modeled, and reinforced through our daily actions and embedded in real-world and relevant learning opportunities.

Empathy can change the culture of a classroom and accelerate student learning. When teaching empathy, educators connect with students and create bonds over ideas, actions, and motives. We explore what we value and discuss the difference between right and wrong. It is about thinking beyond yourself and considering the perspective of others. 

Below are a few practices that work for teaching empathy and a great place to start:

  • Define classroom norms/values: Ask students to collaboratively create a list of norms and values that represent how all students want to be treated. Revisit these throughout the year to ensure the norms and values defined are reflected in the classroom culture. 
  • Teach problem-solving: Define and explore complex problems by utilizing a process that includes prioritizing alternatives, using multiple perspectives, designing an intervention or solution, and evaluating the outcome. Taking the perspective of others and realizing there is more than one solution or way of thinking is key to fostering empathy.    
  • Create change-makers: Encourage students to help others, serve in meaningful ways, and simply have a giving heart. Moving beyond oneself to participate in service projects or empowering students to tackle problems facing their local community can have a lifelong benefit.
  • Conduct class check-ins: Check in with students daily. Take a few moments at the beginning of the day or of a class period to discuss items of interest happening inside and outside of school. The short amount of time invested during a class check-in will accelerate learning and can deepen our personal connections. 
  • Practice mindfulness: Take a moment, at any point during the day, to breathe. When emotions escalate, ask students to stop and reflect. Leading a breathing exercise where students can refocus their negative energy and better regulate their emotions can be extremely beneficial in a variety of situations, both inside and outside of school.
  • Celebrate kindness:  Take every opportunity to recognize the good in our students and in the world around us. When the negative gets louder, it is important to offset the negative with the overwhelming good in the world. Recognizing acts of kindness, no matter how small, will serve as a model for the actions of all students.  

All of these practices strengthen our relationships, both teacher-to-student and student-to-student, while providing support and guidance to help students navigate the complexities of growing up in a sometimes chaotic and unkind world. Empathy humanizes our schools and increases a student’s emotional intelligence. 

Let’s not shy away from the tough conversations. Rather, let’s teach students skills for tackling a variety of topics, issues, or arguments with an empathetic heart and open mind. When the going gets tough, the tough get teaching. Seize every teachable moment. 

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Learn more from Dr. Lissa Pijanowski and other thought leaders and speakers at the Leadership Academy 2018 conference in Atlanta from Nov. 2–4, 2018.