A few days ago, my son said something that surprised me.

He said, “Dad, we have the best cafeteria lady at our school.”

And I said,  “Wait, what?”

But then he went on to describe how this woman chose to memorize every students’ name in his middle school and how she knows his order each day before he orders it.

It was a reminder of empathy and the power of being known. But it was also a reminder of all the people in schools who work tirelessly to care for our students. Often, the first person they meet is a crossing guard, who stands out in the freezing cold to guarantee students get there safely or a bus driver who braves the weather and the traffic and hundreds of screaming kids to get students to school on time. It has me thinking about the aides who help ensure that all students learn, the custodians who transform a well-worn school into something beautiful, and the secretaries who keep things running every day. I’m thinking about the nurses who respond not only to small cuts and bruises but to bigger medical issues as well. They build relationships and take care of the whole child.

There are so many hard-working staff members who make school work. Every. Day.

Which reminds me of something that happened a few years ago . . .

We had done design thinking projects that incorporated service learning elements. Our students had walked through what eventually became the LAUNCH Process:

We had focused on empathy and the intersection of design thinking and service learning. After serving our local community and doing larger global projects, a student pitched an idea to us.

“What if we created something for the people who clean the classrooms? Like, what’s the name of the person who cleans our room?”

Busted.

“Uh . . . I . . . I . . . I don’t know,” I answered after standing there in awkward silence.

“Maybe you should,” she answered.

She was right. This was a wake-up call for me. For all the talk of empathy, I had failed to truly appreciate the person who served our school in such a tangible way. So, I learned her name and for the next few weeks, I began to learn her story.

However, it also became the start of a service project. A group of students gathered thank you notes from students and put together gift baskets. They brought in items they had gotten from Wal-Mart or the Dollar Store and asked for donations. Even though we were a Title One school in a poor community, our students were wildly generous. One afternoon, we placed the gift baskets in the classroom. My students were nervous about it. But then, minutes later, we watched as a hard-working sweeper walked out with tears in her eyes.

Empathy Is Critical to Design

The quality of your creative work improves when you design with empathy in mind. When students begin with empathy, they are able to design products, services, and art that actually reflect the needs and desires of an authentic audience. The Stanford d.School begins their design thinking model with empathy. I love the way Tim Brown of IDEO describes it. “It’s not ‘us versus them’ or even ‘us on behalf of them.’ For a design thinker, it has to be ‘us with them.’”

When we design from a place of empathy, it has the power to change the world.

But there’s a danger in false empathy. It’s the kind of empathy that happens outside of a relationship and the kind of empathy that occurs when people ignore injustice and when they refuse to pay attention to power dynamics. For me, it took a student with wide eyes, who paid attention to the marginalized people in our school, to notice the sweepers who cleaned our classrooms. She called me out for it — and rightfully so. In the process,  she called me out of my arrogance and ignorance and inability to see.

So, how do we get there?

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Making Empathy a Priority

I was recently talking to a few friends of mine who focus on equity issues in higher education. I asked them about what it means to show empathy as  a teacher and how to help students develop it as well. I also posed this question on Twitter as well.

  1. Model it. You can help create a culture of empathy by showing empathy toward students. Listen to them. Ask for their input in lessons. Encourage them to help create the class procedures and rules. Honor their agency by letting them choose topics or questions. Use surveys frequently and talk about how those results are informing your instructional decision. But it goes deeper than that. The most empathetic teachers I know are able to apologize and listen to students. They know how to wait before rushing judgment. They use restorative justice techniques even when the people around them mock it. It doesn’t have to mean they get soft and move to an “anything goes”  mindset. But they show empathy in their approach to discipline.
  2. Understand the role of silence. There’s a fantastic post by Jose Vilson on empathy and collaboration. He’s one of my favorite thinkers. He writes about silence this way, “Learn to feel comfortable with a little silence if you don’t get any response from a question posed. Sometimes we ask a question and don’t get an immediate response. We want to jump in or, worse, reproach the students for not thinking. Let’s wait a second before we do that. How do we know that they’re not thinking?”
  3. Integrate it. Teachers can integrate empathy into subjects like math and science, helping students see that these subjects are human-oriented and they aren’t somehow void of context. When this happens, it becomes easier to focus on empathy in design projects as well.
  4. Embrace the power of story. Stories can be a powerful way to help students build empathy because they help students learn to see other perspectives in a way that’s safe.
  5. Pay attention to power dynamics. When students are truly designing from a place of empathy, they will run into injustice. It’s important that we avoid glossing over the injustice or treating it as something easily fixable. This is why empathy in education needs to overlap with cultural humility and culturally responsive teaching. Which leads to my next thought . . .
  6. Avoid the temptation to “create for.” Empathy is two-sided and horizontal. But when we slip into a “design for” mindset, we’re not showing empathy. We’re showing pity.
  7. Admit that it’s challenging. Empathy doesn’t always come naturally to us. It’s easy to miss the people around us or get stuck in our own perceptions. This is why it helps to have hard conversations about the challenges of showing empathy.

There are some great strategies for developing empathy within design thinking. Students can do Needs  Assessments,  A Day in the Life, a sketch-note of needs,  or a needs-wants chart. However, none of these structures will work unless we create the groundwork ahead of time to help students develop empathy. It needs to be a daily part of our classroom culture.

The End Goal

The end goal of empathy is not “better design” or even “more creative students.” Instead, the goal is “more empathetic makers” or  even “more  empathetic humans.” As a dad, one of my biggest hopes for my three children is that they will grow into empathetic people. In a culture that often runs snarky and cynical, I want them to care. In a social media environment that can easily devolve into hate, I want to see my kids show true empathy toward others. This is not just about creativity. This is about humanity.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

2 Comments

  • Caitlin Misenko says:

    Hi there! I am currently in a graduate course that is focused on teacher leadership. This blog made me realize that no matter the actual job of the person, if they are in an educational environment, they have an affect on the education that is taking place. I feel that every single person that the students work with, see, visit with, pass in the hallway, or wave at have an impact on their everyday life. Too often our cafeteria staff or custodians are overseen. They have the same impact on our students as the teachers do. It is important for students to create relationships with everyone in the building, regardless of what their title be. I think that the seven steps you added to the blog are important to practice. I would like to share this blog with a few coworkers. I think the information that is shared is eye opening and that we can benefit from it if we read and follow the steps. Empathy is a hard concept to teach, but I think if it is taught well, the students will gain a life long skill that will help relate to others.
    Caitlin

  • […] Spencer has a piece about building empathy in students. His tips are good ones but his own personal stories are what really caught me. That personal […]

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