Submitted on Tue, January 10, 2012
“Empathy is at the core of academic programs. This is so incredibly important. We are not preparing our children well if we are not explicitly teaching it. We think about it as part of our responsibility.”
– Katherine Dinh, Head of School, Prospect Sierra
At Prospect Sierra, an independent K-8 school in the San Francisco Bay Area, learning has to do with engaging the heart just as much as it does with engaging the mind. It is a place where compassion is not a program or unit, but a cornerstone of the entire school community. Teachers, students, administrators, and parents are all deeply interconnected and dedicated to making school both challenging and joyous. Learning how to understand, name, regulate and appropriately express emotions, and how to behave in ethical, empathic ways -- are all as critical as mastering literacy and math. We recently spoke with the folks at Prospect Sierra to see what tips they had to offer about activating empathy in schools. Here are few:
1) Create a Responsive Curriculum: Prospect Sierra teachers open space in their classrooms to listen and tap into the passions of their students. They incorporate these passions into their teaching, knowing that when the classroom involves real inquiries and opportunities to take action, students are capable of learning and doing anything. In addition to flexibility on the teacher’s part, this requires support from other teachers and administrators.
2 ) Identify and Unleash What’s Already Working: Empathy happens in every school; it’s a matter of figuring out where and how. Principals who want to see more of it can give it name and draw attention to the places where empathy is already happening. They can water the seeds and help empathy grow. Sharing the stories of empathy in action and making it a visible area of focus will allow others to join into the vision and collectively design new initiatives and daily practices that contribute to an empathic culture.
3) Activate Attuned Community: Nurture a strong sense of community by encouraging all stakeholders to look within and also around. A community of individuals who are in touch with themselves will also be able to find a collective vision to elevate the social value they are creating together. Empathetic administrators and teachers can’t help but influence their community of learners just by “being the change they want to see.” The community then creates a standard by which empathy is the responsibility of everyone, not just of the the “do-gooders.”
4) Make it Personal: Remember that empathy happens day to day, between people. A positive experience of empathy in action is remembered. Kids tell their parents. Parents get excited. Teachers contact each other late at night because they can’t stop talking about it. When you connect the work and learning to inner parts of people – to their sense of purpose and agency in the world - they begin to think more about the impact they have every day. They inject energy back into the school beyond what they previously may have. Empathy can be made relevant for a whole community when it’s made relevant on a personal level.
As the folks at Prospect Sierra can attest, a school culture that is aligned around empathy can lead to some pretty incredible things. Click above to listen to Prospect Sierra's Kathryn Lee recount the story of how a class of third-graders turned their empathy into action—defying the odds (and their teacher’s expectations)—by raising an astonishing amount for a young buddy in need.