Can we teach empathy?
As an educator of a leadership course, I often find myself reflecting on this question.
Empathy seeks shared meaning. By demonstrating empathy, we attempt to emotionally involve ourselves in another’s experience. However, using another’s reference points in an attempt to understand their perspective can be a difficult task—significantly so if we have not participated in the experience firsthand.
On the other hand, if we can manage to facilitate an environment for our students where empathy can be learned, the benefits can extend beyond the four walls of our classrooms. Developing empathetic leaders isn’t the mandate that we are given as educators, but it is something that we have the ability to do. If we consider a part of our bottom line as creating an enriched student learning experience that promotes understanding, empowerment and inclusivity—and we have the ability to do so—the question then becomes, why wouldn’t we?
So what do we do?
Components to consider when exploring empathetic leadership include:
understanding oneself (making meaning out of our experiences and having an awareness of our preferences, biases and assumptions);
understanding others (appreciating diversity and recognizing that perspectives vary depending on personal experiences);
understanding the environment (considering the context and being aware of internal and external influences).
It is the interplay between these three elements that allow students to include the dimension of empathy in their personalized style and approach to situations.
What biases and pre-determined assumptions do I bring to this situation? The first step would be to acknowledge that we have a unique perception, and no two people who engage in the same situation will experience it in the same way. Our perceptions are influenced by our past experiences which influence the way we view what is happening to us and around us. Being aware of our preferences and automatic judgements can help us approach a situation through an informed lens.
Circumstances, situations and perceptions vary among students in our classroom. Not only are we attempting to understand our students, but our students are also attempting to understand each other. How do we create a space that allows them to do so in a way that encourages empathy as opposed to judgment? The way we speak to our students, our body language, and the way we facilitate class discussions all make suggestions to our students of how we are attempting to understand.
Understanding the Environment
Context varies across our classrooms, schools and communities. We are a part of a larger system and the scope you consider impacts the dynamic you create within your classroom. By understanding the context of our environment, and what influences and shapes it, we can attempt to remove the pieces that are disempowering for our students, and those barriers that do not promote inclusivity. Our system influences our environment, however, we influence the environment we choose to create in our classrooms.
I would suggest that empathy, like leadership, is not something that is taught. It is, however, something that can be learned through reflection, intentional exposure to different experiences, and being aware of our circumstances. When we are intentional in creating an environment that helps to facilitate empathy, we contribute to the transformational learning experience of our students. By demonstrating empathetic leadership ourselves we can find that shared meaning that we seek.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rumeet Billan is a social entrepreneur, educator and doctoral student at the University of Toronto. She is the president of Jobs in Education and is teaching a leadership course and a social entrepreneurship course at Humber College in Toronto. Over the past six years, she has contributed to school building initiatives in Africa and South America. In 2010, Rumeet’s vision for enabling education led to the creation of The Toor Centre for Teacher Education in the rural community of Nzeveni, Kenya. At the age of 25 and again at age 28, Rumeet was named one of Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by The Women’s Executive Network. She continues to integrate her business and doctoral studies with her passion for creating change through education.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Sept/Oct 2012 issue.