Empathy Matters.


Johnston’s next two chapters deal with students’ social and moral development. He notices that often times we as educators feel that these elements take away from the precious time that we need to teach children academics but that in reality they offer “concrete places for understanding different perspectives, understanding and managing emotions, learning strategies for negotiating social conflict, and asserting a commitment to fairness” (pg. 91).

These chapters really reminded me of a story that my dad recently emailed to me that offers a perfect example of the importance of considering alternative perspectives. It was too good not to share:

“This actually did happen to a real person, and the real person is me. I had gone to catch a train. This was April 1976, in Cambridge, UK. I was a bit early for the train. I’d gotten the time of the train wrong. I went to get myself a newspaper to do the crossword, and a cup of coffee and a packet of cookies. I went and sat at a table. I want you to picture the scene. It’s very important that you get this very clear in your mind. Here’s the table, newspaper, cup of coffee, packet of cookies. There’s a guy sitting opposite me, perfectly ordinary-looking guy wearing a business suit, carrying a briefcase. It didn’t look like he was going to do anything weird. What he did was this: he suddenly leaned across, picked up the packet of cookies, tore it open, took one out, and ate it.

Now this, I have to say, is the sort of thing the British are very bad at dealing with. There’s nothing in our background, upbringing, or education that teaches you how to deal with someone who in broad daylight has just stolen your cookies. You know what would happen if this had been South Central Los Angeles. There would have very quickly been gunfire, helicopters coming in, CNN, you know…But in the end, I did what any red-blooded Englishman would do: I ignored it. And I stared at the newspaper, took a sip of coffee, tried to do a clue in the newspaper, couldn’t do anything, and thought, what am I going to do?

In the end I though, Nothing for it, I’ll just have to go for it, and I tried very hard not to notice the fact that the packet was already mysteriously opened. I took out a cookie for myself. I thought, That settled him. But it hadn’t because a moment or two later he did it again. He took another cookie. Having not mentioned it the first time, it was somehow even harder to raise the subject the second time around. “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice…” I mean, it doesn’t really work.

We went through the whole packet like this. When I say the whole packet, I mean there were only about eight cookies, but it felt like a lifetime. He took one, I took one, he took one, I took one. Finally, when we got to the end, he stood up and walked away. Well, we exchanged meaningful looks, then he walked away, and I breathed a sigh of relief and sat back.

A moment or two later the train was coming in, so I tossed back the rest of my coffee, stood up, picked up the newspaper, and underneath the newspaper were my cookies. The thing I like particularly about this story is the sensation that somewhere in England there has been wandering around for the last quarter-century a perfectly ordinary guy who’s had the same exact story, only he doesn’t have the punch line.” (https://searchfortheperhaps.wordpress.com/2013/07/20/a-funny-story-about-perspective/)”.

This story really drives home the importance of considering others’ points of view but it amazes me how difficult this can be for children and adults alike. Johnston talks in detail about the importance of helping students develop social imagination so that they are able to consider others’ thoughts, feelings, and ideas. This can be done by opening students’ minds to a variety of different books, while engaging them in conversations like the ones previously addressed in this book. Students talking and listening to each other, while considering not only each others’ thoughts and opinions but also those of the characters in the book, help them to develop their own social imagination. “The more children recognize that others routinely have different perspectives – not just physical perspectives, but emotional, motivational, and cultural perspectives – the more developed they become socially and morally as well as intellectually” (pg. 73).

My husband recently had a conversation with a close friend about homeschooling. While I admit that perhaps homeschooling is the best option for a select group of students and/or parents, I cannot help but think that within it, something is missing. “The value of diversity in our classrooms, along with conversations that maximize the value of that diversity for intellectual, social, and moral development, can’t be overstated” (pg. 85). Herein lies the beauty in our public schools. In order for students to develop the authentic ability to “walk in someone else’s shoes” and display empathy for those unlike themselves requires getting to know people who are different and taking time to engage in conversations about topics that may spark disagreement. This is my job as their teacher: to create an environment where it is okay to disagree and where listening is just as important, if not more, than talking.

I think that if classrooms (including my own) embraced these conversations more rather than rushing though them to get to the next standard, we would be creating true change in the world in a way that people could solve more problems by listening and brainstorming solutions rather than settling on the fact that we will never all agree. I have totally caught myself when conflict arises thinking, “Ok let’s settle this quickly so that we can get back to more important things like learning”, all the while forgetting that students often learn more from the ability to solve conflicts that anything I may have planned for the day. From here on, I hope to look for opportunities to use these seemingly “time wasters” into intentional sparks for increasing students’ social and moral development. Academics matter, certainly. But empathy matters more.


3 thoughts on “Empathy Matters.

  1. “Academics matter, certainly. But empathy matters more.” AH! Lisa, this was beyond perfect. You are undeniably correct in this assertion. It’s also undeniably easy to forget. I also think teachers prioritize this more than other stakeholders (admin, Central Office, etc.) do. I have loved to hear and see how you’ve done this in your room this year. Kudos to you! I really loved your story example and I can’t wait to share that with my students as an example of so many social lessons and to truly illustrate point of view. I think it could lead into a wonderful discussion. Thank you for this post and all your relevant, purposeful examples!


  2. I too love your example and could really feel for the narrator. I think this would be a great mini lesson for students. I can see mine starting by saying, “That’s so funny!” and then I could probe them to ask why it was funny, how did they think the man felt afterwards, how they thought the other man felt, how, without saying anything or asking for clarification the mad impacted how the other person felt as well, etc. Social issues even among the youngest of students are vitally crucial. Learning is social. Living is social. Thank you for bringing such attention to these issues and for making it so fun to read about!


  3. Lisa, I really like your reflections on homeschooling here. On multiple occasions, when parents make demands of teachers on how their classroom should be run, what their kid should read, and how best to teach them, I have heard the teachers joke that “they should just be home-schooled then.” In reality, this would mean that they are only learning from and interacting with their parents throughout their entire day. “Herein lies the beauty in our public schools”- yes! Public schools are flawed in many ways, but they provide kids with the opportunities to interact with a diverse group of people. With a teacher like you, they can feel safe and confident practicing empathy and respectful disagreement. “Academics matter, certainly. But empathy matters more.” – again, yes! What good are the things our kids learn about reading, math and science, if they can’t collaborate with their co-workers long enough to practice and create things using that academic knowledge?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s