Empathy is an invitation to discover yourself by connecting with others in a symbiosis and bonding that heals us. Empathy is the recognition that the meaningful connection to others is where healing takes place, where we can find one another and resonate. Five years ago I met a remarkable young superintendent who leaned in and offered me empathy. This inspired me to look deep within and experience an expansive amount of growth as both a person and an educator. He empathized with me and helped me heal the doubts of self, the moments of stutter where I lost my voice, and helped me grow to see myself in what was to become the next phase of my journey.
Right now, in the midst of the uncertain and shaky, our connections to one another feel both powerful and meaningful, reminding us of our humanity and the debt we owe one another to look toward the promise of the good and the light. I often think about a Facebook meme I saw that had a picture of a dandelion and a rose. In the picture, the rose was complaining about its harsh living conditions. It expressed a need for special food, purified water, and constant attention. The dandelion was growing out of a crack in the cement and with a salty sassy attitude asked for nothing. Just obstinately grew out of place. During this time it feels like we are being asked to be a dandelion— to grow in the harshest conditions with a fighting spirit.
Many times I have been the dandelion, many times I felt that I have grown obstinately and grown alone. But, right now and in this moment, I give pause to the times when others have embraced me in the warmth of empathy. In these moments, I realize even more the need to trust and hold my students in my embrace of empathy and compassion. I want them to know that I care and accept them for all that they are bringing to our learning environment.
Reaching my students during this time is a challenge. My sophomore students are a challenge for me. The way they speak about themselves is harsh. They use language like “I suck” and “I’m so stupid at this.” It makes me incredibly uncomfortable and I find that it is not easy to recenter them in the language of the positive. We have started a new quarter with this fresh start, I intend to change the dialogue of our classroom. I am using the language of empathy to redirect our learning and focus on self-care. I am challenging myself to model positive self-talk.
In my classroom, I use a program called Go-Guardian. This program allows me to send a message to the class as they work remotely from school. During a recent session with one of my sophomore classes, I was growing frustrated with the lack of focus and work that I was witnessing on their screens. I wrote something like, “It’s time to get to work!” Before I hit the send button, I paused. How would I feel if I received this message? What if my students were really doing their best while feeding a little brother or sister so their parents could work? I changed my message, “Awesome job for those of us working hard!” I met my students with empathy, recognizing that all our circumstances are challenging us to stretch ourselves in ways we have never done before and offered empathy not negativity, to motivate them in the learning process.
Empathy in pandemic classrooms has taken root like the persistent dandelion growing despite the concrete. It has to be stubborn and deeply rooted. My freshmen students visit my classroom in person more than any other group that I teach this year. As the youngest learners, I feel that it is important for them to have as much exposure to the concrete and physical classroom as possible. They are just beginning to learn what adult learning looks like.
The second week of school, my administrative team dropped off a plexi-glass barrier on wheels– it looks a lot like a window on wheels. The idea is that you may wheel it about the classroom to keep a barrier between the students and the teacher. On my window on wheels, I have written “persistence” with the definition and an example. I have taken this rather odd and intrusive wheeled window and claimed ownership of it by both overtly discussing the word, its meaning, and its applicability to our current learning adventures and passively reminding them of our new focus by literally putting the word and definition between us. This wheely window allows me to introduce and reinforce the use and understanding of persistence, but it also allows me to be clearly seen in my stance of empathy framed in the window with the words. A new and challenging idea–persistence–delivered on wheels through a window by me and my embrace of empathy in understanding.
For me, the biggest learning during the pandemic in my teaching practice has been developing a strong sense of empathy. To provide students with understanding and acceptance right now is a mindful practice that offers a competing voice with the negative self-talk they indulge in everyday. I hope that modelling and embracing empathy in my daily practice will instill a long lasting habit of mind and heart.
Jennifer Norman is a secondary English Language Arts teacher working in Connecticut. She is the mother of two wonderful children, Sam- age 11 and Claire- age 10. When not teaching, writing, or working on her doctoral work, Jennifer can be found chasing cows on her family’s three hundred acre dairy farm.