I’m tired. I’ve not had to work this hard to build a classroom community since I started teaching! And while I absolutely love Responsive Classroom’s “The First Six Weeks of School,” it just hasn’t been working as nicely as it usually does. There are some bigger-than-life personalities in my class this year! So why am I telling you all of this? Because as I was making my coffee this morning, a moment of clarity happened and I knew what it was that should be my focus this year. The thing that I always teach, but never truly realize how much it matters. The thing that you probably teach, but never truly understand what exactly it means. The #1 thing I should be teaching over phonics, math, reading, or writer’s workshop.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, and I’m sure you already teach it. There might acutally be “curriculum” out there for empathy with lesson plans and activities. And it might not be half bad. But what I mean by writing this is that if your 5 year old or 9 year old or 13 year old students do not actually understand and demonstrate empathy in organic, real ways, then what’s the point?
Here’s a snapshot of something that happened this year. I picked up my class on the playground after their lunch recess. I noticed that most of my 24 were standing in (what closely resembled) a line. But about 5 or so others were scattered about, some sitting down with dirt covering their knees, some standing up arguing, one crying, and another hanging way in the back. We were about to go in a do a fun writer’s workshop activity, something I knew the kids would enjoy. Something I’d planned and then prepped while they were eating lunch. But looking at the kids, seeing what was unfolding, I knew there’d be no writer’s workshop that afternoon. So we went inside, sat on the carpet together, and we talked. We talked and talked and talked. I talked, they talked. I listened, they listened. And we discussed everything. Kids were telling us how they felt, who they felt wronged them. They told us things they noticed, things they joined in on, and things they walked away from. It’s amazing to hear what kindergartners think.
You know what happened? They helped me come up with a solution for poor behavior choices. They helped me come up with ways to acknowledge those who didn’t join in on the poor behavior. They agreed with me and decided with me. And what’s amazing is that the kids who had been wronged said, “It’s ok!” And the kids who had wronged them agreed that their behavior was wrong. They took OWNERSHIP.
Empathy is more than “care about and be nice to each other.” Empathy is about seeing situations from other people’s point of view, trying to understand why they did what they did, and then figuring out the next steps. Part of empathy is forgiveness, part of empathy is standing up for yourself. It’s coming together, maybe not always agreeing, but definitely listening to each other. And that day, my group of 24 learned that they could do that. Their voice mattered, and their classmates wanted to hear it. Their teacher valued what they said. And they felt important.
Do you explicitly teach empathy? I’d love to hear how other teachers are modeling this important life skill for their little ones. It’s something I’m sure so many of you do and sometimes might not even realize. We have the power of shaping the future, and I don’t want us to ever forget how much of an impact we can make!
With love, Holly

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