“How do you teach empathy?” I’m often asked this question, and I’m not sure I have the best answer. I believe empathy comes from a place of understanding, born out of healthy relationships, and oftentimes, shared experiences. The stronger the relationships, the more likely we are to develop concern for others – which is the foundation of empathy.
My son, Micah teaches gymnastics now, and he’s experiencing empathy firsthand. “Dad, one kid I work with is so ADHD. He’s all over the place.” My wife walked through the room and chuckled. “Welcome to our world,” she said. “No – I really mean it,” he said. “If I’m not watching him every second…” Yes, I thought – welcome to the world of the teacher. Micah went on to tell us how he really liked working with this child because he could relate. “I think it’s easier for me to be patient with him because I understand what it’s like.” Boom – Empathy.
I would love to take credit for teaching him to relate to this child, but I can’t. Micah and his student just happen to have a shared experience. However, my hope is that we modeled patience and understanding, which in turn, indirectly taught him to do the same. This is a very important lesson for teachers as we move into the final stretch towards summer. If our goal is for our students to develop empathy, perhaps the best we can do, as teachers, is help them experience less judgment, more patience, and more understanding from us. So, when they get older, they too are able to relate, have shared experiences with others, and thus, pay these traits forward.