Graduating with empathy

by Ryan B. Jackson, Ed.D

I love hopping on Voxer and listening to other leaders make the case for top leadership traits. Passion, communication, vision, ingenuity, integrity – the usual suspects. All solid traits, no doubt, yet I’m here to make the case for the underdog of emotions, the most underrated of all leadership traits: I’m here to amplify Empathy.

I’ve been serving in education for a decade, all of which has been in a large, urban school district serving primarily low socioeconomic students. If we’re being transparent (a trend I hope never gets old) serving in high-poverty schools can harden even the most passionate of educators. Maybe that’s a little shortsighted, as today’s educational landscape seems to contort and constrict just about all educators regardless of setting. Appreciating just how tough it is to be an educator helps when trying to understand why something as powerful as empathy sits buried at the bottom of the leadership trait totem pole. Today’s educators are so busy weathering the continuous tempest of change, we too often embrace the callous, cold reflection of our data and directives.

The reflective practitioner in me not only understands but has also been entirely guilty of the educator’s survival tactic of trading empathy for sympathy, the arm’s distance 2nd cousin to truly helping others. Unlike sympathy, empathy goes beyond feeling, beyond compassion; it pushes into action-verb territory as it forces us to step inside each other’s world, witnessing the struggle – free of judgment and perception. When we embrace empathy-based leadership or teaching practices what we’re really doing is committing to a lifestyle change, a paradigm shift that begs us to perpetually shift our perspective at will, depending upon whom we’re dealing with at any given moment.

And, well, it’s hard.

Like water…

Sometimes our bodies own physiology makes legitimate excuses for our behavior. Let’s face it, our science shows we’re comprised of about 70% water and like water innately we tend to travel down the path of least resistance. Thus, if we leave it up to nature and I’m sure Darwin’s philosophy of Survival of the Fittest would affirm, empathy doesn’t stand a chance. In his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind, Eric Jensen makes the case that empathy absolutely must be taught, as it is not one of our six innate emotions yet imperative for successful socialization. Therefore, since we’re not born with the knowledge of empathy coupled with the fact it’s an arduous trait to continuously and effectively implement, we begin to understand exactly why empathy falls into the “I know I should be doing this but…” category, right next to exercising, clean eating and financial planning.

Going back to Jensen for bit, I actually think it’s dangerous to presume all leaders and teachers are capable of exercising empathy. The fact is, just like so many of our students, if they, too, weren’t taught empathy early on, there ‘s a strong chance they flat-out don’t possess it – at all. That’s a scary thought, a very, very scary thought yet nonetheless true. Furthermore, as 21st century leadership continues to shake-off the antiquated traits of leadership’s yesteryear, it’s important we disengage from the barbaric mindset that all leaders must be overtly tough and that vulnerability and emotional intelligence play second-fiddle to authority and power. And so, if we genuinely buy into the ideal that education is the key to unlocking the world’s potential and that our academic institutions are the last training outposts before we reach the world’s wilds, it then behooves us to identify empathy, analyze it, apply it, before finally – hopefully – creating cultures that reflect understanding, love and equity.

living the dream pic
Are you an empathy-based leader?

I leave you then with a little call-to-action: Are you an empathetic leader? Does it help steer your moral compass? If not, I beg you undergo this life-changing transformation, choosing to presume positive intent through embracing the feelings and emotions of others. If in fact you are, how are you ensuring empathy is a hallmark inside of your school, classroom or organization’s culture? How are you measuring such a qualitative construct to ensure it permeates and maximizes your leadership influence?

Let’s continue this dialogue in the comment section, Twitter feed and Voxer groups – our schools are counting on it!

7 thoughts on “Graduating with empathy

  1. Sold! Truly believe in the power of being an empathy based leader. I’d love to hear more about how you are measuring this qualitatively within your campus, because it must be a “hallmark” within ALL schools.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post as usual Ryan. I make space as an empathetic leader by creating space in my calendar to really listen to students. It took at least a decade, but I’ve slowly learned to listen without judgment, not only in my heart, but also on my face! I literally leave my door open so that students can have access and I make sure I give 100% attention while they speak their minds. I have found it powerful to summarize what I’ve heard and repeat that back to my students to make sure I understand their position. Finally, I keep cash and food in my drawers so I can help out when necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This piece really strikes a cord with me. Empathy is a vital requirement of servant-leadership. How can you truly serve students if you don’t understand how they feel and what they need? However, as a classroom teacher, I lack the specific skills and strategies I need to utilize empathy on a whole-class level. I can easily empathize with a student or two in a one-on-one setting and utilize after school detention as an opportunity to have a real heart-to-heart with students about challenging behavior. But when I’m in front of a class of 30 with challenging behavior, the tools I have are primarily about power and compliance. What are some classroom strategies for using empathy in teaching?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sharon, actually your instincts are spot-on, as one-on-one relationship building is the cornerstone of whole-group trust — especially in environments pre-conditioned to distrust due to inconsistency, apathy and covert/overt bigotry.

      The idea is to continuously build upon these relationships, building towards critical mass student-by-student. The absolute truth is there’s no classroom management panacea, only sweat equity and the commitment to perpetually nurturing relationships.

      I’ve always found it ironic that we’re asked not to take things that happen in education personal — and I understand why — yet the imperative key to all of our success is just how personal we take the responsibility.

      Keep watering the seeds!


  4. Great post, Ryan! Our district adopted a goal centered on the development and practice of empathy to better connect with out students. I love how you brought it out in application with your students!

    Liked by 1 person

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