Following a contentious debate over our new Secretary of Education, it is crucial to keep empathy in mind when we engage with one another.
We may not use the word “empathy” with our kindergarteners at Beacon Elementary School, the preK-3 school in the Detroit area where I’ve taught for 32 years, but we still try to teach it, by encouraging them to think of how their actions impact others.
Our principal and staff are dedicated to creating a positive school culture for our students — and that includes helping them think about how we treat others and how others treat us. It’s critical to set this foundation early, which is why we place a culture of respect and caring as one of the most important things we do at our school.
I’ve heard the same from other teachers and other schools. Students around the country have shown concern for what the future may hold. For instance, a small group of students in our majority African-American school asked if, as a result of the election, slavery would be coming back.
It’s hard to know how to respond to these things, but we tried to reassure our students by calling on our school’s “golden rule” that we point to when conflict arises: we would never let anyone talk to you or treat you in a mean or disrespectful way, and we won’t let you do that to others, either. By drawing on a shared cultural understanding we have as a school, we were able to assure our students that all would be well.
Even though the weeks after the election have been challenging, I have noticed that at Beacon the children have “recovered” much quicker than the adults. At school, things remained predictable: adults continue to teach and look after children, and children continue to learn and look after each other. This quick return to normalcy I attribute to our strong school culture and philosophy.
Oftentimes I’m asked about specific things I can point to that are responsible for our positive environment. One that I’ve seen be very effective is what we call our “focus room.”
When students are feeling or acting overwhelmed, we send them to our “focus room,” where an adult can help them explore their feelings and understand where they’re coming from. It’s our way of making students feel listened to and supported — while still letting them know the importance of treating others with respect, just as they would want to be treated (again, our golden rule).
I have a student this year who visited the focus room. An only child, she was just not used to waiting, taking turns and sharing. These things are fundamentals for success in school, but frustrating to a little girl who was used to being first and attended to immediately. One day early in September, she wasn’t chosen by a friend for a school activity, and, disappointed, slapped the girl who was chosen. Her time in the focus room allowed her to calm down, and think about what had happened. When she returned (with an apology drawing), she told me, “I’m gonna use my words, next time. Maybe she’ll pick me or maybe she won’t, but nobody likes it if I hit them.”
We build an empathetic campus community in other ways, as well. For instance, the communication app ClassDojo has helped us build a larger community of support at our school with its varied messaging capabilities that connect home and school. The principal and teachers at Beacon are so convinced of its positive power, it’s used schoolwide. Our parents enjoy that it’s user-friendly and easily fits into their lives.
I can message individual parents privately about their child and parents can do the same. And photo- and video-sharing of “stories” makes it easy to share those exciting moments from class with parents, so they can join in. In a similar way, with our whole school involved, being able to update all parents on upcoming events, interesting news and points of pride has allowed us to build trust in our staff and a sense of membership in the school community. When your students are facing challenging moments, as some of mine did after the election, having this supportive community can make all the difference.
Look around my classroom today, and you might see uncertainty — about the election, friendships or any of the thousand things that are on a kindergartener’s mind. But you’ll see something else as well: compassion for one another, and commitment to being part of a caring school community.
They may not be familiar with the word empathy yet, but my students already know how to put empathetic ideas into action.
This piece was originally published in The Hechinger Report on February 9, 2017