How can we teach empathy in schools?

Three minutes
Brendon Barratt Sunday, October 9th, 2016

What is empathy?

When I have to explain it to students, I talk about it as walking in another person’s shoes or seeing things from someone else’s perspective.

On why empathy is important, I feel that Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird put it best.

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Empathy is listed as a key historical concept in a number of Humanities curriculum documents.

As a Humanities teacher I therefore take it as my duty to teach students empathy.

As a human I also feel it my responsibility to teach young people about empathy.

I read an interesting piece some time ago written by the British author Ian McEwan. In the wake of the September 11 attacks of 2001 he asserted that one of the tragedies of the event was in the hijackers’ ability to “purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy”.

“It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity.”

“[Empathy] is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.”

September 11 was before many of my students’ time, something I realised whilst teaching chronology in Year 7 Humanities earlier this year.

They were not alive to personally experience the weeks of media saturation that replayed the shocking events out on televisions across the world, yet they do still have an awareness of it.

Through empathy, the students can sense the gravity of the events.

I believe that empathy is a powerful tool for facilitating students’ engagement with historical events on a personal level.

hand empathy rainbow

Through asking students to put themselves in the shoes of individuals from the past they are asked to observe common threads in the human experience, both then and now.

Whilst learning about World War One in Year 9 Humanities I gave the student an assignment called ‘In a soldier’s boots’.

The task was to write diary entries from the point of view of a fictitious young ANZAC describing his thoughts and feelings.

Their recreations were imaginative and poignant.

The questions that students had asked seemed to answer themselves when the students engaged in the exercise of putting themselves in the shoes of a person at that time and in that context.

As a teacher I find my self drawing on empathy as a resource of compassion and forgiveness and to better understand my students.

I find that by exercising empathy I can forgive that student who is so social that he has to greet every student he comes across in the hallway before eventually arriving to my class.

By standing in their shoes I better understand that child who does all he or she can to avoid doing work.

I can give them the benefit of the doubt that this is not out of spite for me but more likely because of his or her lack of self-belief or fear of failure.

Returning to Atticus’ advice, if we accept that the only way to truly understand another person is to imagine yourself in their skin then perhaps teaching empathy in our curriculum is a strategy for enabling the interpersonal skills and ethical understanding of the young people we teach.

In the current global climate that we live in I believe there is no better time to be aiding students to grow their capacity to empathise.

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