Tuesday, January 14, 2014


There is much educational “noise” about learning for the 21st century and the need for U.S. schools to prepare our students to compete on an international level. Talk of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is predominant, along with project/passion based learning and innovative teaching design. Many educators are making great strides in these areas but in order for them to achieve optimum success, to truly forge the global citizens we hope our students will become, it is critical that we include empathy on the list of key 21st century skills.

Empathy enables us to stand in somebody else’s shoes and see the world through their eyes. Educators are increasingly challenging students to identify real world problems and develop creative solutions to those problems but how can they do that effectively if they have no empathy for the end user? Unless we help students build creative, intuitive, trusting and collaborative relationships with others, their solutions will based upon their own perceptions of what the end user needs, not what they actually do need. Empathy enables students to integrate other people's perspectives with their own. It is the ability to identify with others; it forms bonds, develops leadership, and brings about a level of self-awareness that helps us find meaning and purpose in our lives.

So where do we begin? With active listening. Active listening is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying, but more importantly, try to understand the complete message being sent. If we can learn to actively listen we leave little room for assumption, interpretation or doubt. If we can learn to remove distractions and fully focus on the speaker we will be more able to listen to content and match the verbal and non-verbal clues to understand both the content and the emotion of the person’s message. We can suspend our own frame of reference, avoid judgment and let the speaker know that they are being heard and understood.

I am fortunate enough to have a school counselor who was willing to come and teach my students and me a lesson on active listening. We all learned so much, particularly about how to create an atmosphere of trust and mutual understanding. We witnessed first-hand how a speaker is more likely to be open and honest with you if he knows he is speaking to an empathetic, active listener. And that’s powerful.

I believe my job as an educator is about helping young people to become effective human beings and rounded individuals, able to make a positive contribution throughout their lives. It is about preparing them for their role in society, to be able to know and manage themselves. But doesn't that begin with me? To help my students make the necessary leap of imagination needed to walk in someone else’s shoes I need to learn how to do it too. Building empathy is my own personal goal this year, it’s the goal I have for my students, and it is my wish for everyone.

If we could all develop empathy for each other, for our students and colleagues, family and friends and for those we have yet to meet, wouldn't our world to be a happier, loving and more unified place? Empathy helps us to see and understand how others may be struggling. This can inspire us to develop solutions or a commitment to help. We are more likely to become more caring and thoughtful citizens, and this is how we change the world.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! I agree completely. Your fellow country-woman, Karen Armstrong, wrote a book called Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Chapter Four is Empathy. A great read if you have the time!