Empathy means you can truly understand how someone feels. It doesn’t mean sympathy – where you feel sorry for someone. When you feel empathy, it can be hard because you share the feelings of that other person. If they’re unhappy, you know what it feels like. However, if they’re happy, you also know how that feels.
Last week a large group of teachers, and high school students, worked together to brainstorm ways to help students in school learn empathy. In my group, we had lots of ideas which we put together under three categories: Open Communication, Relationship Building and Ownership. We felt that if you had the first two categories, it would lead to Ownership.
Building empathy in schools will help students to be more successful because in life, we all have to relate to other people. If you understand how someone feels, you are more likely to be able to resolve difficulties without them growing worse. Open communication means you can feel that you can express yourself and someone will listen; it means they can speak to you and you will listen. If someone tells you calmly how they feel, it is much less antagonistic than if they yell at you because you’ve accidentally upset them. You listen to each other and you respect each others’ feelings. Relationship Building makes everyone feel valued. It helps you to understand that no-one is perfect, we all have strengths and flaws and we should share our differences as well as our similarities. Students and teachers should feel equally comfortable with each other and respect and trust each other. If these first two categories are in place, then students will feel a sense of Ownership – this means they will feel in charge of their own learning. I believe that when students feel this, they are motivated and more likely to push themselves to succeed. They won’t be scared to ask for support or to ask questions. They will understand why learning will help them and they will have more choices in what they learn and how they learn.