Friday, December 28, 2012

Why Empathy?

 Empathy Symbol image retrieved from http://www.empathysymbol.com/


This is a guest post by Larry Hartel, my principal at Glendale Sciences and Technology School. Click here to read it where it was originally posted at Empathy ReBoot, one of our school blogs.

Why Empathy?

Good question. Undoubtedly there are those who believe a successful inclusive school is one that tries to accommodate kids who don't really fit the mold of a 'regular' classroom. Perhaps they would view inclusion as a set of strategies enabling the rest of us to tolerate their presence in our classrooms. They may even go so far as to say they accept these kids. At Glendale we're not those people. Tolerating kids who are different isn't good enough for us. As we design a cultural shift toward full and ubiquitous inclusion at Glendale School, we're not even comfortable saying we've accepted the kids who are different from the rest. For our school to be truly "inclusive," it must be one that celebrates difference.

We are on a journey to learn how to celebrate the diversity of students we encounter within our school as a cultural reality worthy of celebration; to glare at strengths while only glancing at weakness. To do so, we must understand that inclusion isn't simply a set of strategies, but rather a reality in the world that schools should be reflecting and influencing. The world is a wonderfully diverse place. We have to reflect this if we are to create authentic and optimized learning environments for ALL students.

A balance is struck in culturally diverse schools when students realize that being different isn’t a quality reserved for others, but rather a state that describes each one of them. When students learn how to celebrate this balance in support and recognition of each other, the gap of ignorance between them narrows, and they begin to function as interdependent learners on their way to becoming well-adjusted, high-functioning peaceful global citizens of an intercultural society. If it is to be, it's up to we.

In order for a classroom to be inclusive, the environment has to recognize and celebrate each individual as the person they are.  Inclusion must go beyond looking at ways to include students with disabilities that are obvious. Inclusion must look at the myriad of ways that students can differ from one another.  This will include race, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, family background, sexual orientation, language, abilities, size, religious affiliation, and many other ways that we are all truly, (and thankfully) different. Inclusion did not create the differences we have in our classrooms; they have always been present, but it does provide us with the golden opportunity to re-frame schools so they honor and value the presence of every single student, staff member, parent and significant other person associated with them. Inclusion provides a context for us to recognize that the classroom is diverse and that we need to perceive this reality as a feature, not a bug.

I believe that the heart of a truly inclusive classroom is empathy.  At Glendale we have looked long and hard at our counseling and discipline referrals finding that a lack of empathy seems to have emerged as a frequent and common theme. This has led us to conceive our Empathy Reboot Project. I feel that empathy may be the quintessential people skill necessary for all of us to create an authentically inclusive school community. "Empathy is a fantastic tool which can help us reach better consciousness of ourselves and the surrounding world. Anyone can develop empathy skill". 

I attended a conference in Edmonton two years ago surrounding issues facing First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples. Best practices were shared freely. One of the Elders stated during the opening prayer that he wanted us all to ensure that the knowledge we were about to gain would touch our heart first, and then our head.  What an important sentiment, “Heart, then Head”.

We are framing empathy as the ability to identify and associate as much as possible with another person’s feelings, life situation and story. We do this effectively when we put ourselves in someone else's shoes and hence become tuned in to how he or she feels about things. We must deal with the feelings first. If we can identify with feelings first, then we can begin to think deeply about why those we encounter say and do what they do, and then finally we can talk about the tools they need to prevail, and the tools we need to help them prevail.

Feelings first; thinking second; tools third.

In the world that we live in; the one that screams past us at breakneck speed, there are so many influences that have an incredibly desensitizing effect on our students. We have to be empathic to this reality. It is the moral imperative of schools to provide safe, caring, compassionate, responsive and empathic environments for our students if we are to take actionable hope by packaging them well as they encounter the challenges of life. They are our gifts to the future; the citizens we need to sustain and lead us into that hopeful future.
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