Empathy is a valuable skill that enables better learning and teaching. It is especially important during this time of the pandemic. Listen as Steve discusses how to develop empathy with Author Tom Hoerr.
Get in touch with Tom: firstname.lastname@example.org
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Announcer : 00:01 Hello and welcome to the Parent Wellbeing and Student Learning During School Closures Edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. With the extended closing of schools, we as parents have entered into a new territory regarding what we have known as “school learning.” With this and future podcasts, I’ll look to share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner.Hello and welcome to the Parent Wellbeing and Student Learning During School Closures Edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. With the extended closing of schools, we as parents have entered into a new territory regarding what we have known as “school learning.” With this and future podcasts, I’ll look to share my experiences as a teacher, educator, parent, grandparent, and continuous learner.
Steve: 00:34 Developing empathy, an important success skill. Tom Hoerr, a veteran school leader and author of the book, “The Formative Five: Fostering Grit, Empathy, and Other Success Skills Every Student Needs” joined us in an earlier blog where we examined the success skill of grit. I asked Tom if he would return today and and explore empathy as a success skill. So welcome, Tom.
Tom: 01:00 Hey, thanks. It’s good to be here.
Steve: 01:02 Tom, you make an opening statement in your book that as you’ve as you’ve grown older, you’ve come to see the value of empathy more and more and I’m wondering if you might discuss your insights around that and then lead us into some help defining empathy.
Tom: 01:22 Sure. I’d much rather talk about that than talk about getting older.
Steve: 01:25 [laughter]
Tom: 01:26 So in my book, The Formative Five, I set up five success skills and those are the skills that I believe we as educators need to help children develop to be successful in the world. And they’re empathy, self control, integrity, embracing diversity and grit. And when I give presentations, people will often say to me, “wow, these are important, which one’s the most important?” And I respond by saying, well, that’s like saying you have five children, which one do you love the most? You know, there’s no right answer to that. Semi-Colon, however, comma, I with empathy for a reason. And that is while all of these skills are important, when I look around the world, I have to tell you, I think we would be all living in a much better situation if the folks around us and if we had more empathy.
Tom: 02:11 Empathy is the ability to not just sympathize, to not simply feel sorry for somebody, but to really understand their perspective. To see how they’re seeing world, the way they’re doing. And it’s most often talked about in terms of people who are in a difficult situation and appreciating feeling the way they feel so that you can better understand their challenges. That’s true – paragraph, however, I would argue that empathy is also important in our day to day life in understanding how people with the different political position, how people with a different position on work, come to the workplace. In any institution, you’re going to have lots of different attitudes. And often I think, leaders a mistake and that is they never deal with those, they never address those, they stay at a very superficial level. I’m running a school, we only talk about education curriculum. And what that does, I think is inhibits the ability of the faculty to come together and really work and learn from one another – Roland Barthes, collegiality. So by developing empathy within your teachers, I think you help them become a better team. And you also set the stage, of course, for helping them develop empathy within their students.
Steve: 03:33 Tom, I want to check with you on something. As I’ve debriefed with people going through the quarantine time here and the school buildings being closed, one of the things that I’ve picked up is a a sense of an increase in empathy. So I found teachers describing their administrators as being more empathetic kids, describing their teachers as more empathetic, parents being empathetic of teachers and teachers being empathetic of parents. And the part that I’ve kind of been challenging people is can we hang on to that when the school doors open back up and and things return to some sense of of a previous normalcy. Am I am I accurate in that read that the crisis part kind of cranked up people’s empathy?
Tom: 04:27 Absolutely. I mean, and I’ve experienced that as well. I’m teaching at the university and I just finished a class university of Missouri St. Louis of 18 students working on master’s degrees. They want to be principals. So it’s an ed leadership class. And I’ve been zooming with them and hearing them talk about their situations and their students’ situations, we’re all in the same boat. When you look at empathy, there are basically three levels if you will, that we tend not to think about. The first one is a cognitive aspect of empathy. And that is simply knowing how people see things differently, understanding that you can gain that by reading about people in different situations. Most of us, most educators, I think, do that, address that, but once you get beyond cognitive empathy, the next step is emotional empathy. And that’s really feeling the way people feel. Well, that’s what’s happening now with the sequestering.
Tom: 05:25 We’re all feeling it. It’s not that we’re reading about people who are stuck at home. It’s not that we’re simply hearing about them on the news, we’re also in that same situation. So our empathy necessarily, actually, it goes up and becomes much more intense. And then I would add the third level is actionable empathy. So it’s not enough to simply know people situations and know that they see things differently. It’s not enough to actually feel the way they do, but if you really want to teach empathy, if you want to develop empathy, then you need to get involved. And of course, the sequestering, the virus now is also causing a lot of people to do that. So I’m with you Steve. I’m hopeful there’s always sunlight in the middle of every storm. And I’m hopeful that we come out of this with a much better appreciation and understanding for one another and that that stays in part of the new normal is that we’re more caring and more empathic toward other people.
Steve: 06:23 So Tom, you listed some steps to developing empathy. And the first two were were listening and understanding. And I’m wondering if you can kind of label that for us and then how do I, as a parent begin to assist my child in developing that listening and understanding piece?
Tom: 06:49 I think with all of these success skills, actually with all of education, you know, it begins with intentionality. It begins with saying, this is what’s important. And in my book, The Formative Five, I talk about beginning with vocabulary. So to me, empathy is a word that we should talk about. It should be known by children, whether they’re five years old or 15 years old. And I think we, wether we’re the parents at breakfast or the dinner table, or wether we’re the educator, we need to consciously seek out opportunities to understand how other people see the world differently. This has probably always been a problem, but I think it was more so today because it’s a whole lot easier for us to stay in our cocoon. I’m old enough when there were only a few network television stations years ago, and everybody watched, you know, ABC, NBC or CBS.
Tom: 07:39 Well, now there’s, what, 50 channels, a hundred channels who knows. And so politically you can turn on the channel that supports your beliefs, and you can watch that all the time and you never really understand that there’s another way to look at things that people are seeing things differently. Similarly, it’s possible to only talk to the people that are going to support your beliefs. They’re going to say what you want to say. And when we do that, I think we miss an opportunity. So as parents or as educators, we have, I think, a responsibility to help people, help kids see that it’s a complex world and begin to see that people see things differently, logically, not because they’re wrong, but because they’re in a different situation. And we all gain when we make a point of understanding how other people view the world and how they feel.
Steve: 08:28 Tom as I’m listening, I’m sensing a – it’s a need to stretch outside of myself to look at it differently. How do I, as a parent, explain that with with kids?
Tom: 08:45 One of the terms I talked about, vocabulary, a moment ago, one of the terms that I haven’t mentioned, that I think everybody should be talking about is comfort zone. We can establish comfort zone with our kids, help them understand what that is and why it’s easy by definition. Our comfort zone is where you’re being reinforced. Your values are always around you, it’s easy. But then I would say, let’s talk about what’s different. In most communities, for example, if you get in a car and drive 10 minutes in one direction, you’re going to see a different kind of neighborhood. And it may be a neighbor that has more poverty. It may be a neighborhood that has more opulence, but then looking at that even while you’re driving and say, how do you think we might see the world differently if we grew up here, what would that look like?
Tom: 09:31 There’s also an amazing book called “Material World”, by Peter Menzel. And it’s a book that I think would be great to have in every home and certainly in every school library. And in Material World, what they do is they look at 30 cultures around the world and when you open the book, there’s a photo of a family from their culture. And they’re standing with all of their worldly possessions. So here’s a family in Los Angeles and they’ve got three TVs and two cars and all these clothes. And then you turn the page and here’s a nomadic family living in the middle of a desert with very few things. And not only is the photo there, but there’s texts that goes in and explains what the living conditions are like, what the climate is like and so forth and so on.
Tom: 10:18 And I think it’s a great resource, whether you’re growing up in Vermont, Utah, London or Tunisia to see the world around you and begin speculating. How would we live differently if we were in the middle of a desert, or if we were in Los Angeles, how would we see things? And again, that’s that intellectual, that’s the cognitive empathy. The first step about what trying to talk to earlier. Once that’s established, then you can begin to really talk about how people might feel. If you’re a teacher, great window there is using novels, using history. We’re really good as educators about teaching kids what happened and when it happened. We’re less good about teaching them why it happened. What were the underlying assumptions? Looking at slavery, we all know that economically there was an advantage to people to have other folks who were their.
Tom: 11:10 But let’s step back and look at, how do we think, how did they feel? “The Invention of Wings” by Sue Monk Kidd is a great novel that would be appropriate for a class to begin to get in folks’ heads. Now, if you do that, and here here’s the worry Steve, people need to know that if they do this the right way, if cognitively kids understand emotionally, they understand, they’re going to want to get to that last step of actionable. If they’re going to want to make a difference. It’s hard to really, appreciate how people feel, see the different situations and not then say I need to get involved. And I would argue, that’s good. To me, that’s a success, but you just need to be aware of that that’s where you’re headed.
Steve: 11:54 I’m guessing that’s the part that, I want to use the word, sinks it. If a student is going through that experience of, I know myself, I know this other person, I get a sense for where that other person’s at. And if that drives me to take action, then when I actually take the action that has a way of getting me to hold onto it a deeper.
Tom: 12:14 Yeah, absolutely. And to circle back to where I began, you know, it would be such a better world if we all had empathy. And what you pointed out was as what this virus has done is again, reminded us of the disparities in our society. Not only who has technology to learn school at home and who doesn’t, if you look at the illness rate of African Americans, if you look at poverty, where people work, and it’s not enough for us simply to understand that, although, certainly understanding is better than not understanding, what we really want is for us to say, I’m going to do something about it. It’s a little like if you will, racism. Too often, people say, well, there’s nothing I can do about it because it is so endemic in our society. Well, the ride isn’t to make – but yet if everybody says I can’t do anything, then nothing happens. We each need to take a stand. We each need to work to make a difference in our corner of the world. And if we all do that, we can begin to tip things in a really wonderfully positive way.
Steve: 13:12 Tom, I’m wondering if you would just circle this back for us and what is it about empathy that as student learning and internalizing empathy, leads them to be be more successful, having that as a life skill?
Tom: 13:30 I think when we look at the world in which our kids are going to be living, one of the things we know is it’s going to be a more diverse world than it is today. And what that means is whether they’re working in the home, out of the home, in an office, on the road, whatever, they’re going to be interacting with lots of people who are different than they are. Different color, different social, economic status, different sexual orientation, different political beliefs. And the more empathy they have, the better it is going to be for them, because the easier it’s going to be for them to understand where other people are coming from into work for them. With a lack of empathy, you are only going to be comfortable and successful with people who share your beliefs and your values, and probably your background. By having greater empathy, not only are they more likely to work, to make the world better, which we all want, but whatever they’re doing, I think they’re going to be more successful regardless of the people around them. And in fact, having greater empathy becomes an advantage because it increases the likelihood that you can be successful, whatever you’re doing with whomever, you’re doing it.
Steve: 14:36 So there’s a piece that’s flowing through my head and I want to thank you for this chance to be learning with you. I’m sensing that trust is critical in environments where you’re asking people to work and be successful. And I’m getting a sense – and I hadn’t thought this through before listening to you now, but the presence of empathy is much more likely to build that trust in that environment, in that set of relationships, to allow people to not only be individually successful, but collaboratively or corporately successful.
Tom: 15:18 That is well put Steve and like you, I hadn’t put it in those terms, but you’re exactly right. Empathy builds trust because it takes away, if you will, the quick tendency, we all have to have value judgements. You know, it’s easy for me to know what’s right. What’s right is what I believe and what I do, whereas empathy on the other hand, forces me to step back and listen to you. One of the things I just wrote – I just wrote an article called the principal is the CEO, chief empathy officer. And I would argue that in schools, the principal needs to be the chief empathy officer. She needs to be not only modeling that as we’ve talked about, but she needs to be evidencing that with her faculty, if she wants her faculty to be empathetic with her kids, she needs to be with them. And of course, that all comes down to trust. So that’s communication, that’s listening, that’s trust.
Steve: 16:14 Well, Tom, thank you for adding to my learning one more time. I appreciate it. I’m guessing this won’t be the last time you’ll get a call from me asking if you’d join me to explore one of these topics. I’ll be sure to to list your books and your contact information in the lead into the podcast so people can follow up with you.
Tom: 16:35 Great. This was fun. And let me just end by saying that educators work their tails off all the time and these conditions today where people are working even harder and they’re doing it with a smile. So if I can help, great, keep up the good work, all of you.
Steve: 16:52 Take care. Thanks Tom.
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