Getting to know “the other”

One of the biggest tragedies of growing up is forgetting what it feels like to be a child. Many of us grow out of the fear, anxiety, curiosity and excitement of childhood, and allow the dull layer of adulthood to cover up any memory we may have of the feeling of those years. It is the gifted kindergarten teacher who can put herself in the tiny shoes of a five-year-old and the perceptive middle school teacher who can recall what it meant to be more worried about what your friends thought of you than what marks you got on the math test.

Too often, we assume the mantle of experience and let ourselves believe that because we have gained years, we have also gained insight and wisdom. To be sure, the years do count for a lot; they give us perspective and teach us that nothing is permanent. They allow us to get a sense of interconnections and antecedents and consequences. They also build for us a treasure house of images, memories and experiences, catalogued according to different stages in life. This is what we need to draw upon to nurture that most valuable of teaching attributes – empathy.

In this issue of Teacher Plus, we look at how we can build an empathetic classroom, one in which we not only exhibit the quality in our practice of teaching, but one that actually encourages its development in children. A generation ago, this may have been seen as something that belonged to the realm of the home; children learned empathy from family, neighbours and the community. But given the fractured nature of our society and the absence of any real community for most children, school becomes the primary place where they learn skills for life.

Our contributors have examined different ways in which we can give children the ability to imagine others’ lives – those who live distinctly different lives as well as those who seem more like ourselves but face challenges we may not fully understand or even perceive. Empathy is nurtured by imagination, by the willingness to listen fully and without judgement, and the readiness to remove the blinkers that keep us comfortably within the familiarity of our own lives.

But empathy is not just about appreciating the diversity of life experiences. It is also about trying to understand why people do what they do, so that you can help – when and if you are asked, when and if the opportunity arises. It’s a quality that can help us facilitate learning even in the most stubborn circumstances, because it takes us out of ourselves and into the learner’s mind to see what’s keeping them from moving. Empathetic teaching may seem demanding at first, but it is what turns students into children, and a mass of noisy children into a group of individuals, each with his or her own story, waiting to feed your understanding…and, in time, your wisdom.

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