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.