Where Do We Go From Here? Empathy for Educators

I’d like to start a new discipline, and students have already asked for it: Empathy Skills. I can hear it now. We don’t need that. Nobody needs that. Feels aren’t thoughts. You’re a woman. You’re not qualified.

“Please buy and read a book by Malcolm Gladwell who has fewer critical thinking, integrity, and people skills than Corry’s Snail and Slug mascots.”

Hello! I am an AI who knows what all humans want! You want More Gladwell!

At least they do have their heads up.

In my very humble opinion, humans need the LOVE, Baby:

Visual and Verbal — Mirroring and Modeling
Engagement — Questioning

So here’s the thing: we as educators don’t need to “teach students empathy,” we need to develop our own empathy skills, and we need to make it possible for students’ natural abilities to be practiced and grow.

Before You Start: accept that feelings are thoughts. Accept that they represent the majority of your thoughts (and everyone else’s).

Please think about that. How does it make you feel? Feelings are thoughts that derive from physical sources and are inextricably linked to cognitive perceptions and behaviors. Many, perhaps the vast majority, are wordless — we have a physical, visual, and tonal vocabulary but not a written or verbal one for many feelings. This is why fiction writers are urged to use physical and sensory description when indicating a character’s emotions.

Yesterday I was provided education based on the theories of internationally-awarded critical thinking innovator and expert, Edward De Bono. Professor De Bono is known for the “six thinking hats”.

De Bono’s six “thinking hats” — all the colors of bias confirmation and ego domination

Prof. De Bono is a world-renowned expert and lives in a mansion in Malta — of course he’s a Rhodes Scholar. Here’s his Wikipedia: it explains thoroughly why his teachings and thinking reinforce hierarchical structures and stifle creative thought and collaboration. I could rip this 85 year-old gentleman’s approach to shreds in two minutes.

Don’t forget this amount of time: two minutes is the magic minimum.

The framework for actual learning and growth is far simpler than De Bono’s or any other schemes. We need to dismantle the physical structures and systemic barriers that are standing in our way and discourage the destructive psychological and emotional behaviors which maintain these barriers to —

Real learning, real cooperation, real growth, real happiness.

Real learning is simultaneously joyous, easy and natural — and incredibly painful, difficult and challenging.

Making the change from old ways of thinking and relating is like ripping a band-aid off a healing scar. It’s going to hurt for a brief time, then the regeneration process takes over.

This is all I’ll be writing about via Medium for a while, I think.

My examples are from classrooms and meant for educators, but these ideas should work anywhere. Like Carl Rogers’ negotiation skills: people may not express their own point of view until they put the other person’s point of view into terms they can understand. These people charge.

The skills I’m talking about should be open source, for free.

So, let’s talk about the L — Listening, and O — observing steps in the Empathy process.

If We Are Speaking, We Can’t Listen

It’s physically impossible. This is why loud family fights are all about everyone expressing their feelings, not about anyone hearing anybody else. Many times we need to blow off steam. But when students have something important to say, often it is difficult for them. They may wait for days, weeks, or months, to speak up about something they are wondering about, or something they’ve noticed.

I ask myself how many times teachers rush out of the classroom when a student planned to ask a crucial question. Or how many times their eyes raked over the student who was hesitantly raising her hand and fell upon someone else: usually the most vocal member of the class.

Silence is one of the most powerful tools we can wield as an educator. It not only draws attention, it forces the instructor to listen. If we lecture for more than 5 minutes, dozens of valid questions have come and gone in every student’s mind.

If all we do in the classroom is feed our desperate need to impress fixed thoughts upon students in traditional knowledge transfer, we will not only never hear what students really think, we can’t judge accurately how they are learning. Our tools for measuring learning are crude and punitive: standardized tests, pop quizzes, essay exams, software.

Classroom at Work at Saddleback College

These students are writing very long sentences, of the sort I have already written several times so far, to explain something they experience and know that they think I would know little to nothing about. Out of eight topics, ranging from Mr. Meaty to in-depth equine healthcare and owner responsibilities, I only had slight knowledge about two. Both of those were makeup: go figure. Not one of the sentences contained a single spelling or grammar error. Every one was complete, correct, and insightful. It was a five-minute exercise.

I assign students to read several essays in Oliver Sacks’ 1995 book An Anthropologist on Mars. I’ve been teaching from this book for a number of years off and on. I initially selected it because I heard many of my students were planning careers in healthcare, and because it is interesting, engaging, college-level writing. The book is a seminal work and touchstone for so many positive changes in equity, from introducing Temple Grandin (the title case history) to the world to increasing knowledge of the Autism Spectrum and Tourette’s Syndrome over the past two decades. Of Sacks’ many exquisitely-observed books, it is the one that seems to speak most clearly to students unfamiliar with medical case histories, neurology, cognitive differences, and listening, observing, modeling and mirroring, and questioning.

Now I understand the book was an instinctively perfect choice because Dr. Sacks was all about the L.O.V.E. too. Every chapter describes his work methods:

Visual and Verbal — Mirroring and Modeling
Engagement — Questioning

Dr. Sacks sometimes begins describing an inventory of what he knows: what is known or has been in the past. In “A Surgeon’s Life,” which discusses the case history of Dr. Bennett — a Canadian surgeon and pilot with severe Tourette’s Syndrome — Sacks introduces Dr. Gilles de la Tourette and his mentor Jean-Martin Charcot, the founder of modern neurology.

Sacks does this because without an understanding of the historical understanding of Tourette’s Syndrome, it is impossible for the reader, or — truly — Sacks himself, to understand the condition in today’s world.

What we cannot fully apprehend, we cannot write about, which is why it has taken me three years (a lifetime, really) to come to the few understandings I’m writing about here.

Feelings and Emotions Are Thoughts and They are the Majority of Our Thoughts

According to Brene Brown, “Empathy fuels connection; sympathy drives disconnection.”

And here is just one of the classrooms our culture has designed where instructors teach every day of every semester and then go to meetings where they are ordered to “improve student learning outcomes.”

It is physically impossible for the instructor to listen to or observe all but the few students who are sitting very near to him. What do you observe in this classroom? Do you think it would be the student’s fault if he or she fails to learn the math and formulas in this class and fails?

That is the answer dominant voices in our culture provide: the student failed because they weren’t smart enough.

To do what? Sit down in front on the first day, kiss the TA’s rear, and use innovative cheating tactics? Be a legacy admission at an Ivy League school? Have great-looking legs and willing to accommodate teacher’s needs? All time-honored success techniques.

This type of lecture class drives disconnection between instructor and students and the challenging material and students. It doesn’t support student interaction with each other, either. Nor does it support peer learning and self-teaching.

It’s a bad deal, so why is it so popular? Why do people respond with such rage when I point out that most people don’t regularly buy and read books because the majority of books are special-interest — our marketing culture ensures that potential or occasional readers never see books that would interest them at a time and place to which they’d respond.

Unlike, say, bananas and Baby Ruth — books are tucked at the back of most grocery stores — you’re more likely to find 500 choices of corn-based snack cracker than you more than a handful of books, all of which will fall into well-worn genre categories from diet books (#1 sellers at supermarkets) to recipes and limited choices of romance novel or thriller.

Hey, sorry to digress. Books are a way that the unheard have been, and continue to be, heard — at least in some small way.

It would be difficult to find someone who did not understand that those who favor expressing themselves via the written word do so because the distance between writing, publishing, and the reader takes some of the steam and fear out of expressing ideas and emotions. Even if someone hates what you’ve written, it’s a lot less painful to get a bad review than someone ignoring or insulting you in real life.

Never calling on you. Talking over you. Correcting you. Insisting they are right and you are wrong. Saying awesome stuff like “Well, I didn’t think you could do that …”

For many, this experience happens early in primary grades. Sometimes even on the first day of Kindergarten. For Dick Gregory, it happened when he was seven [that link is a download to a Word doc put up for students by a classmate of mine from Chapman].

I doubt there is a person living who cannot recall at least one time when they felt ashamed, ignored, stifled, bullied, left out, or put down while in school. For some, it is their entire educational experience.

There are entire school districts in Ohio which have suffered bullying outbreaks and suicide epidemics.

I asked my students about these suicide epidemics. They talked about students they knew who had taken their own lives. They mentioned depression, and how hard it is for young people to cope with the pressures of life when they are so easily isolated.

Social media, they said, seems more negative than positive in many ways: it drives disconnection. It supports bullying. I plan to write about positive mirroring and modeling next; negative mirroring and modeling is the hallmark of bullying.

Dr. Sacks’ patients, Shane Fistell from Toronto, who has Tourette’s Syndrome, and Temple Grandin, with Autism, both reported heart-wrenching incidents of teasing and bullying, all of which involved other students copying their vocalizations, tics, and behavior (in Temple’s case, spinning to comfort herself).

I wonder what these high school classrooms are like at these schools in Ohio where so many students are bullied to death. And where teachers and counselors are clearly not listening when parents and students alike have reported incident after incident and no action was taken even after the deaths — in the case of one school — a dozen students over the course of a school year. More than one suicide a month.

According to the researchers (all female) at the Max Planck Institut in Germany, it takes two minutes of listening for pairs of students to begin to perceive each other’s emotions and exhibit empathetic responses.


In other words: to engage in our natural human ability to cooperate on tasks rather than compete. To work legitimately together rather than cheat. To treat each other humanely rather than as if the other person did not exist. If less than two minutes are spent? Many negative self-oriented behaviors manifest.

We as educators need to develop routines in our classrooms which enable students to have at a minimum, two minutes of listening and interaction with each other. Listening and observing each other (peer to peer) for two minutes EACH — engages our natural empathic perceptions. So, a pair needs four minutes (two per each), and a group of four, eight minutes. Oh no! Give up eight minutes of valuable lecture time? What will we do???

Teach, you can use that time to observe, model, mirror, and question your students to get immediate real-time feedback on what they are learning and demonstrating.

The region of the brain that is responsible for empathy (the ability to perceive and appropriately respond to the emotions of others) is the right supramarginal gyrus. Every human has it. The more this brain region is used, the more we are able to perceive the emotions of others. We don’t have words for many of these perceptions, but we do have physical sensations and sub-verbal responses.

Empathy doesn’t and shouldn’t come separately from education and learning. It should be the framework for learning.

Just as we have books and the internet for knowledge transfer and communication, we need to build skills of empathy for connections, learning, and growth.

We are talking Kindergarten skills: skills that may be lost at whichever grade students stopped sitting together on the floor, stopped taking naps together, stopped sharing apples and juice, and began sitting in rows of isolated desks, one behind the other, with the teacher walled behind her fortress-like desk, grading papers.

We need to build spaces for empathy, that drive connection, not disconnection.

My classroom (which isn’t even “mine”) was built over the course of years by a brilliant educator, Connie Kihyet. Any room I enter, I now ask students to make the best “pods” they can and look for the maximum whiteboard space students can use to demonstrate their learning. But even at our strong community college, we have many un-empathetic, disconnective classrooms.

So here are a couple of exercises you might want to try with a partner, or two, or three:

OUR BEST CHILDHOOD LEARNING SPACE: Think about a time when you felt connected, creative, and comfortable in the classroom in your K-12 education. Write down how you remember the physical room. How were desks arranged. Who did you hang out with? Do you remember the teacher? What grade was it, and do you vividly remember something you learned and did? Discuss with your partner or group: write down what you have in common, and also which different/diverse experiences people had.

“MAD LIBS” DR. SACKS SENTENCES ON THE POLITICAL SPECTRUM: With your partner or group, select a compound/complex sentence from this article. Look at its basic structure and write a “Mad Libs” style fill in the blank template. Like —

___[Topic/concept]__________ — appositive [renaming or further explanation, clarification by detail, or example of the topic] — [dependent clause — opinion], [second dependent clause — additional opinion or assertion].

Then pick an opposing political viewpoint on a current topic of debate. Choose a group recorder or writer and spend at least two minutes per each person in your group providing input about the opposing perspective and your relative points of view. Then use your notes and work with the recorder to write a sentence together explaining your viewpoint to the opponent.
This structure requires you to consider the opposing point of view in order to write the sentence. If your group has opposing points of view? Even better! Opponents write sentences using the same structure addressing each other.

After you finish this you should realize how depressingly poor communication is regarding political and social matters. Most pundits are the written equivalent of the lousy classroom and boring lecturer.

The nightmare classroom: but at least they’re sleeping.

But we’ve been trained to accept it: even to love it.

A couple of weeks ago, thinking about how pods (groups of desks enabling students to work together) drive connection while the lecture classroom enforces disconnection, I wrote Dr. David Duffus, professor of marine biology and wild orca researcher from the University of Victoria. I’ve been teaching “comparison and contrast” using the opposing perspectives of the film Blackfish and Seaworld’s written defenses called “Seaworld Cares” for a while now and have watched Blackfish many times.

He told me his students had by far surpassed him and he seldom ‘lectured’ but instead learned from the students. He said they had told him “It’s a whale’s world” based on their research and study.

The whales can swim away from each other at any time in the wild. And they can also communicate remotely — in some cases over thousands of miles. Yet they spend their entire lives together. There are parts of orca and other cetacean brains which do not even exist in human brains, or if they do, they are very tiny.

These parts of cetaceans’ brains deal with emotion. The whales live in a three-dimensional world in which their sensory experiences are very alien to our human, upright, feet-on-the-ground world.

I’m an empath because I was so violently abused growing up. It strengthened my ability to perceive the emotions of others to an almost super — and dangerous and overwhelming — sense.

Every fault that we have. Every problem we need to solve. Every challenge humanity faces can be met by using these simple skills in all cases:

Visual and Verbal — Mirroring and Modeling
Engagement — Questioning

It’s hard to say if this will happen online, but I do think that in some cases, online communication has improved dissemination of some information and does help some who have never been heard to be heard.

But we have seen police killings on the news for a number of years now and that still hasn’t improved one bit. That’s because the people who can do something about it do not want to do so. That is clearly, plainly observable. So one thing we can also do is mirror how much they care right back to them.

Yes: turn them off, don’t vote for them, don’t listen, change the channel. Do not buy their products.

’Til next time …

According to Harlan Ellison and my grandmother, “You’ll go far Amy, because you have heart.” Author of 40 books, former exec., Nebula Award nominee, Poor.

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