How do we understand others?

Thanks to McCormick Principal Don Baker for sharing the Washington Post article cited in this blog post.

“Empathy” is defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” This goes far beyond sympathy, “an understanding or common feeling between people.” Truly having empathy for another can be challenging – how many people do you know who are truly able to empathize with a situation they have not experienced? And yet, even empathy is, in some situations, not enough.

Texas teacher Emily Smith experienced this when one of her students of color told her she couldn’t understand his problems because she was white. “I had to agree with him,” she said in her speech accepting the 2015 Donald H. Graves Excellence in the Teaching of Writing award. “I sat there and tried to speak openly about how I could never fully understand and went home and cried, because my children knew about white privilege before I did. The closest I could ever come was empathy.”

This experience changed Ms. Smith’s approach to teaching altogether. She says, “So as I stand here today I can declare that I am no longer a language arts and social studies teacher, but a self-proclaimed teacher of social justice and the art of communication with words.”

Ms. Smith experienced how empathy is just not enough in a dramatic way; but all of us, teachers or not, can apply her example in our everyday lives. We each have our own experiences, and too often we judge others through our own lenses, deciding what is “right” or “wrong” or “appropriate” based on our own perceptions and experiences. As Mr. Baker says in his post, “A simple consideration of my own life shows that I lack the life experiences to truly understand the needs of all our students nor can they all understand mine. The sooner we lose the arrogance of our own position, the stronger our instruction and impact can be. After all, that is why I became a teacher.”

Thank you, Mr. Baker and Ms. Smith, for this enlightening reminder that we can all try a little harder to break down barriers and understand each other better.

Read the Washington Post article here.

 

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4 thoughts on “How do we understand others?

  1. Pingback: Highlights of 11/19/15 school board meeting | Andrea Brady's Blog

  2. Andrea
    According to Emily Smith, the teacher you and Mr. Baker much admire, these are her words.
    “I am no longer a language arts and social studies teacher, but a self-proclaimed teacher of social justice and the art of communication with words.”
    “…we, the teachers, are responsible for instilling empathy and understanding in the hearts of all kids. We are responsible for the future of this country.”

    Really? So according to her, a child’s parents are excluded from this training. And I’m sure religious training is also out. Apparently Emily Smith advocates dismissing that and replacing it with her own brand of liberal/progressive indoctrination. Is usurping the authority of parents to achieve some teachers’ idea of social justice a good idea? Are we about to introduce self flagellation sessions to atone for white privilege? And as far as teachers being responsible for the future of this country consider this. The latest study has the U.S. education ranked 28th worldwide in math and science. And although we spend more money per pupil than any other country we’re still heading down. In my opinion Emily Smith has just discovered a reality most everyone else saw by age 6 and claims she has all the answers. She has a lot to learn.

    Regards

    • Tom, I really did not get that from the article or her comments. I read it as a young woman having an awakening about how she interacts with others – and her making a commitment to work with her students in a way that was going to reach them instead of furthering the divide between people. There is no mention of undermining or dismissing parental roles in the article – in fact, she quotes one student as discussing his parents’ sacrifice in bringing their family to the US.

      I also don’t agree with you that most people understand the reality of the divide between people by age 6. She is talking about a racial & cultural divide, but I would argue that it’s a division between us all. I certainly don’t know many people who are truly empathetic, much less go beyond that to work to understand what another is going through. We are all too quick to dismiss others’ experiences, perceptions, thoughts, beliefs … we label people, decide they are “liberal” or “conservative” or “non-religious” or “too religious” or “racist” or all manner of words. We jump to believe we understand what someone is saying or doing, when in reality, we are seeing them through our own lenses. If we were not this way, if we worked to open our minds and hearts to others and their experiences, to learn where they were coming from and why – this world would be a much better place.

      • Andrea
        you say;

        “…If we were not this way, if we worked to open our minds and hearts to others and their experiences, to learn where they were coming from and why – this world would be a much better place.”

        And then what? We all went thru this kind of stuff in the 60’s and 70’s. It gave birth to what is known today as POLITICAL CORRECTNESS and the never ending discovery of people victimized by society. So is the world a better place now that we can demonize whole segments of the population to achieve “social justice”? I don’t think so.

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