The Common Good

The Teaching of Empathy

The announcement was broadcast at the end of the day over the school’s public address system.

"Our Teacher of the Year for 2013-2014 is ... Mr. Barton. Congratulations!"

I walked out into the third-grade hallway where students were lined up for dismissal. Little hands reached up and patted me on the shoulder. Small voices joined together and called out, "We're proud of you, Mr. Barton!" Alondra, a quiet student, pulled me close and said, "Thank you for being my reading teacher." I was honored and humbled.

As I walked back into my classroom, I reflected over my five years teaching at this Title I elementary school. "Who am I, what have I done, to become Teacher of the Year?" I asked myself.

I thought about Shenice, a student I worked with when she was in fourth grade. She had a round face, chubby cheeks, sparkling brown eyes, braided hair with colorful ribbons, and a beautiful smile.

On some days, her mood was sunny. On others, it was stormy. On the sunny days, she worked hard to become a better reader and writer, pouring herself into our books and stories. On the stormy days, she challenged me to become a more committed, creative, and compassionate teacher.

I remembered one of her sunny days, she jumped up and down and threw her hands in the air after successfully completing a vocabulary matching puzzle I had made for the day. I also remembered a stormy day when she jumped at another fourth-grader and pounded her unmercifully with a loud voice and unkind words.

I sat down with her on that stormy day and raised an “umbrella” over our heads. I often used this imaginary umbrella when I talked with children in crisis. The umbrella was designed to remind me that, more than anything else, the child needs someone to listen and to understand.

I knew some important things about Shenice. Her mom and grandma struggled mightily to keep food in their bellies, a roof over their heads, and clothes on their backs. I knew part of her anger came from fear, the fear that often accompanies economic poverty. I knew her mom and grandma were her fierce advocates. Shenice had dreams. "I want to be the first woman to coach a high school football team," she told me one day. Her mom and grandma aimed to help her.

I asked Shenice why she did yelled at the other student. "Well, she said something mean about my Momma,” Shenice said. “She started it, but I finished it!" 

We talked about seeing things through other people's eyes and feeling things through their hearts and finding ways to build them up instead of tear them down, ways to heal them instead of hurt them. We discovered that the other fourth-grader had been evicted from her house and was angry, confused and afraid because of it. "Wow," Shenice said, "I would have started something, too, if that had happened to me." She apologized to the other student, hugged her, and they walked away as friends.

That memory of Shenice helped me answer my Teacher of the Year question.

I learned the importance of supporting and listening to students from reading Alex Kotlowitz’s book, There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America. It's the story of Lafeyette and Pharoah Rivers, 11- and 9-year-old brothers growing up in the Henry Horner Homes, a public housing complex in the inner city of Chicago. Kotlowitz calls his work "the journalism of empathy" because he tries to stand in the shoes of his subjects as he is writing about them, and he writes to help his readers stand in his subjects' shoes, too.

I also try to stand in the shoes of my students, and I help my students stand in each other’s shoes, too. So, I might call my work "the teaching of empathy."

Who am I? What have I done to become Teacher of the Year? I am an empathetic teacher who tries to stand in my students' shoes. I teach my students to stand in each other’s shoes. I practice the teaching of empathy. This is my greatest achievement, my greatest contribution to public education and to my world.

Trevor Scott Barton is an elementary school teacher in Greenville, S.C. He is a blogger for the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center

Photo: Chalkboard, discpicture / Shutterstock.com

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