Knowledge Versus Behaviors

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I have been struggling with the idea of shifting what we know about empathy into consistent actions that show empathy. After 22 years in education, I consistently observe the knowledge of what empathy means is more developed than consistently acting with empathy. My struggle is not just because I see kids “saying the right thing” but not always “doing the right thing” – it is my struggle, a teacher-in- general struggle, a parent struggle, a human struggle.

Over the course of my first year in a middle school setting, I have witnessed numerous opportunities for students to say and do the right thing. Sometimes the word and actions are very little, like a student saying thank you to another; sometimes they are big, like a group of students voluntarily helping to work with special needs students.

Sometimes I witness the perplexing situation of students being able to say the right thing, but do the wrong thing within the same class period.

About two weeks ago, I read aloud the book Nerdy Birdy by Aaron Reynolds to my classes. Nerdy Birdy is a fabulous book. It tells the story of a bird who is invited to a community of birds after he has been excluded by a group of “cool” birds. Nerdy Birdy is later disappointed when his new community excludes a bird that doesn’t fit in with their norms. Both during and after the read aloud the discussions of this book were fabulous. The seventh graders saw some of the humor in the descriptions of the birds and they explored the hypocrisy of the group of birds that welcomed Nerdy Birdy. We also talked about how these moments of inclusion/exclusion happen in the real world. They shared ideas about immigrants, cliques in schools, and the gap between the rich and the poor in our city as well as our country. They said all the right things.

After the read aloud and discussion, the students moved into an individual work time that gave me the chance to work with a small group and confer with some individuals. After about 20 minutes of this individual work time, I asked the students to find a partner to share some thinking about what they accomplished that day. We have a sharing norm, that when I say partners, it means two people in a discussion. If based on attendance, we have an odd number of students in the class, I will ‘claim’ a partner so everyone is involved in a discussion with one other person. In all of my classes that day, I witnessed several students actively avoiding others. There seemed to be a desire to not get ‘stuck’ with a partner who was not perceived as a friend. Even though they could say the right things less than 25 minutes ago, they struggled to do the right thing.

Once I gave a gentle reminder of the expectations of a partner share, everyone eventually found a partner for this two-minute chat, but there were some eye-rolls and tangible sighs before everyone had someone to listen to his/her thinking.

I feel like I put forth a great deal of effort into community building. I believe that the kids I work with could identify characters in stories who show or lack empathy and compassion. I believe that if asked, “What would you do in _______________ situation?” they would all say the right thing. However, I am still troubled when I don’t see them act in a way that shows they understand the right thing to do.

It could be easy to dismiss the ideas I just shared with the notion that my students are 12 or 13 years old and over time they will learn how to control impulses (like actively showing frustration when you are disappointed with an outcome) that could make others feel unwelcome or excluded, but I see the same problems with myself and other adults. I am definitely guilty of not consistently doing the right thing. When I reflect upon my actions, I get frustrated with myself, but I can’t seem to break the cycle. I fail to include colleagues, family members or a neighbor. I cringe when I am expected to work or be around people I have had difficulty with in the past. I struggle to entertain ideas that might challenge long-held beliefs about a variety of topics.

With role models like me, is it any wonder that students in our schools have difficulty doing the right thing? 

The statement above was not written in a state of self-loathing or as an attempt to dismiss the thoughts of anyone who knows that I definitely do not walk through my life as a teacher by yelling at kids, shaming kids, or actively show disrespect to others. That statement is an honest statement. I believe I am a work-in-progress in regards to consistently acting compassionately and with empathy. To be honest, I also believe we all are works-in-progress. However, if we want our students to grow into the future adults we hope them to be, we all need to do better.

For now, I will continue to work at being a better version of who I am. I will also continue to give chances for my students to both say and do the right thing. Maybe next year if I read Nerdy Birdy, I won’t see the eye rolls or hear the audible sighs later in the class period.

photo credit: MTSOfan Legalize Empathy via photopin (license)

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