I was a classroom teacher for 37 years. I loved teaching English and Theatre, and I would have stayed 40 years, but my husband was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and given a limited time to live, so I retired to care for my beloved Scott in his final 11 months of life. During Scott’s initial diagnosis and treatments, my 10th grade students were so caring and wonderful, that I still cry when I think of their actions.
Scott became ill a few weeks before the Christmas holidays, and with his diagnosis and extensive surgeries, I missed the two weeks of school prior to holidays. During that holiday, my students sent cards (to both of us), sweet emails of support, drawings, gift cards, pastries, and little stuffed bunnies (I adored my students, and for years, I called them my ‘bunnies’). Their empathy was overwhelming; a gift I will always remember. I also felt that all our classroom lessons involving empathy had been heard.
When we talk about empathy, I can’t help but be reminded of this quote by Daniel Pink:
Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.”
I am still a teacher who believes strongly that empathy can be taught, and teaching 10th grade English, with works like To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, The Chocolate War, as well as numerous short stories and poems, allowed for many opportunities for classroom discussions about empathy. I can remember that for some students, empathy was a difficult concept to grasp; as it was not just a feeling of sympathy, rather it was putting themselves in the shoes of someone else and feeling that person’s feelings. When incidents happened around the school that could lend themselves to a teachable moment about empathy, I used a few classroom minutes to discuss those events, always trying to share the idea of empathy, which can diffuse anger and resentment more quickly than any suspension or detention. Many students confided in me about conflicts at home, with parents or siblings, and we discussed looking at the situation from the other person’s point of view, and feeling what they were feeling. Some students worked to solve their own conflicts through similar discussions with their parents or siblings, proving that communication and empathy can extinguish a problem.
Teaching empathy in theatre class through role playing provided many emotional experiences for my students. For some, life had always been about them, and the transference of feeling provided a sort of awakening. I observed students begin to treat each other in a kindlier fashion, and my theatre class became a little family, where everyone felt safe, secure, and accepted.
Throughout the years, I was assigned almost every student with special needs who came through the doors of our school. Some teachers may have looked on this assignment as a punishment, but I did not. I loved seeing the abilities in these students, rather than their disabilities. I tried to set an example for every student in the class to help not only the ‘special’ student, but to help each other. It was my habit to tell students on the first day of class that everyone has something to teach the others in the classroom, and that we must all extend ourselves to each other for everyone to reach his full potential. I modelled this behaviour during lessons, asking students who were unsure of an answer or concept to call on another student to help them to “figure it out”. When this happened, as it often did, students began to ‘rush’ to the aid of the perplexed student, because they felt his pain of not knowing, and they wanted to jump in and help. Empathy wins again.
I think you will agree that our world could be so much better if everyone could feel empathy for others. I did my best to teach it for 37 years, and I continue to teach empathy through my book for student teachers and my new children’s book. Empathy helps people to relate better to others, which leads to better sharing of ideas. Empathy allows us to put another person’s negativity in perspective, without spreading those negative feelings to ourselves. Empathy helps make all of us better communicators, and more understanding of people. Daniel Pink is right: ‘Empathy makes the world a better place.’
Dede Faltot Rittman is a 37-year veteran English/ theatre teacher from Pittsburgh, Pennyslvania, teaching 35 years in the North Allegheny School District, where she also coached varsity golf for 33 years.