The Importance of Maintaining Empathy for Our Learners

The importance of maintaining empathy for our learners - TLG-IMG-07312018This summer one of my closest friends is taking swim lessons. Let me tell you about this friend – she is in her thirties, is an amazing educator, and will begin her new role as an administrator this year. She’s someone I consider to be an expert on most matters. Not only has she taught me how to assemble outfits with the perfect accessories, but she’s someone I always go to when needing personal or professional advice.

The other day we were discussing how she ended up taking swim lessons as a thirty-something adult. Well, she doesn’t know how to swim, and since she enjoys kayaking and other water activities, she decided it was time to learn. Since she knows how the learning process works, she sought out the support of an educator, a swim instructor, to teach her the art of swimming – really the backstroke and freestyle.

We were talking about the process of learning something new – and how uncomfortable she feels. As hard working, successful adults, it is rare when we REALLY find ourselves learning something new. So, I started reflecting…

I thought back to my experience two summers ago at International Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, as part of my State Teacher of the Year (STOY) tenure. All the STOYs traveled to Alabama during the heat and humidity of July to live in dormitories and experience Space Camp for educators. On the first day, one of our leaders chuckled while saying, “There’s no tired like Space Camp tired.” We all laughed thinking, “We’re teachers, we’re always tired!” But boy, was he right. We were physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted each day.

Why? Well, at space camp we were asked to keep a rigid schedule, eat at certain times, be at places at certain times, and engage in activities at certain times. We were asked to work individually, with partners, and in small groups. Sometimes we chose; sometimes we were told. Sometimes we worked with close friends; sometimes total strangers. We were asked to learn new things, to take part in experiments, and to take risks with our learning. We were asked to sit through lectures and PowerPoint presentations. Sound familiar? The bottom line is — we were asked to be students.

We were physically, mentally, and emotionally tired each day because the act of learning, and being a student, is exhausting! Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, and often as an adult, it’s humbling.

Tweet: The Importance of Maintaining Empathy for Our Learners #edchat #education #teachersSo back to my friend and her swim lessons… At her latest lesson, she was uncomfortable when the instructor asked her to try something that she wasn’t quite ready for. She said to delay her attempt, she cracked a joke.

She avoided the task. Just like many of our students do during the learning process!

Sometimes they ask to go to the bathroom, or they act silly to distract themselves and others, and they may wind up in trouble for their behavior. My friend and I left that conversation reflecting on the importance of maintaining empathy for our learners.

Empathy is one of the social-emotional skills that I believe is essential to learn in order to be a healthy and contributing member of society. In believing that, I incorporate ways to practice the skill in my academic and social lessons throughout the school day. Just like learning any skill, whether it’s math facts, how to use punctuation marks, or the backstroke, learning how to maintain empathy takes practice. Practice both for our students, and for us as adults.

So, the next time you are trying something new – maybe it’s a recipe, maybe it’s trying to understand a game your child has made up, maybe it’s how to use a new piece of technology, or maybe it’s trying to make sense of a new curriculum your district has adopted – whatever it may be, pause in that moment of fear, uncertainty, and discomfort. Sit in those emotions. Take a mental note of how it feels. Then, when you are back in your classroom with your students this upcoming school year, take a moment every once in a while to pause and bring up that mental note. Remember what it feels like to be a learner. Maintain empathy for our students. Learning is exhausting.


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