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Empathy as a Teaching Tool and Learning Outcome

By Trae Holland
Empathy as a Teaching Tool and Learning Outcome

Even by historical standards, the rising voice of nativism and various anger-fueled nationalist movements over the last year has been notable as a global phenomenon. Every day, students in international schools throughout the world are too often faced with the grim possibility that the politics of fear, resentment, and exclusion dominating their TV screens and video feeds may be in danger of drowning out both the guiding principles of the schools they attend, and along with them, the message of tolerance contained in the missions those international schools collectively espouse.
So now more than ever, the question is pressing: How do we best inculcate the world’s leaders who now inhabit our classrooms with a lifelong reverence for social justice, equality, intercultural awareness, and human compassion, which together embody an ethos of inclusion that lies at the very heart of our shared call to action as international schools? In other words, how can we best teach our students authentic and sustained empathy?
Empathy is that rare quality that can stand as both learning outcome and teaching strategy, acting effectively as both a destination and pathway. It is deceptive in its simplicity when we define empathy as merely “understanding the feelings of others,” yet that most basic spark within the human condition has improved more communities and uplifted more lives than even the most erudite doctorate thesis on blended learning or preoccupations with the merits of formative versus summative assessments.
Here’s a quick story. In 1996, I met a couple of community leaders and unlikely partners, in Durham, North Carolina who will always sustain my belief in the vital importance of suspending my certainty and seeing my world through the eyes of another. Ann Atwater, an experienced African American community organizer had been working in collaboration since 1971 with C. P. Ellis, who hailed from the largely white agricultural community outside of town. Where before they had been enemies, they forged a friendship born of necessity and mutual desire to see their town prosper. Oh, and by the way, at the time they began their working relationship and mutual journey of understanding, Ellis was serving as the Exalted Grand Cyclops of the Durham chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
Years later, when I met and spoke with them, they still reminisced on how their unspeakable loathing had, through practical expediency and a rare willingness to empathize, become a working collaboration and ultimately mutual respect. C. P. Ellis once said, “Here we are, two people from the far end of the fence, having identical problems, except her being black and me being white… The amazing thing about it, her and I, up to that point, [had] cussed each other, bawled each other, we hated each other. Up to that point, we didn’t know each other. We didn’t know we had things in common.”
So how do we teach this and replicate this powerful impulse among our students? How do we ensure the optimal growth conditions within our “learning ecosystems” that will allow empathy to flourish? Having seen firsthand how empathy can be authentically nurtured both systemically and at the individual level, and in all types of learning communities, the following cues have served me very well:
• First, research and our own experience shows us that empathy finds root more commonly in what is tangible and relevant to the students’ immediate experience, and most certainly within situations where young people are already invested in the outcome. Thus, we should insist on grounding empathy training not in the abstract but in real life issues the students personally face and can touch.
• Second, we know that empathy is not a natural reflex or response toward another when a person embraces prima facie assumptions about their own comparative superiority, whether it be cultural, academic, or even ethnic. Therefore openness to a new point of view must begin with a “suspension of certainty” in one’s own righteousness. Creating healthy, self-targeted skepticism is one of the most important precursors to mutual respect.
• Next, the real catalyst for breaking a stalemate is the “gamechanger,” the person or event that irrevocably changes the dynamic, breaches the wall protecting the status quo, and reconfigures the terrain on which the present impasse or antipathy rests. Something as basic as an individual willing to risk a small conciliatory gesture or expend effort toward a shared goal even before their opposite has proven a willingness to reciprocate can radically alter the game.
• Finally, all contributors and collaborators in the shared enterprise—whether they were the initial risk taker, in the second round of followers, or the final, last-minute contributor that made the common goal achievable—all those who put their hands and backs into moving the fallen tree out of the road are equally valuable to the solution.
How miraculous that our neural circuitry has been proven by research to be so malleable. The wonder of our brain’s neuroplasticity ensures that empathy and compassion are not static, but can be trained and improved. I am overwhelmed by the simple fact that we as educators have it within our power to model, instill, and grow empathy as a central learning outcome of our teaching. Better still, the brain itself can be a willing, even “empathetic” partner in that journey.
Trae Holland is Director of Academia Cotopaxi’s The ONE Institute. With 19 years’ experience teaching in the U.S. and in international schools, his specialization is in learning differentiation.

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