Opening day for Teaching Empathy Institute


mets cap

When I was 7 years old my father took me to a baseball game at Shea Stadium in New York City.  The memory that stands out for me from that day has nothing to do with the game. Instead, I remember an incident that took place in the seats in front of us.  An older man was sitting in someone else’s seat. He probably misread his ticket and was in the wrong aisle or section. When the person who was supposed to sit there found his seat occupied, he started screaming at the man. I remember watching the face of the man who had sat in the wrong seat. He seemed flustered, confused, and embarrassed. I remember thinking, why is that man being so mean?  For the rest of the game, I couldn’t get the older man out of my mind. I found myself wondering how he was and where he was sitting. I wanted him to be okay. I wanted him to have a good time. I can still see the face of that man in my mind. I remember the straw golf cap he wore with the NY insignia in orange, his pained facial expression. That experience and its accompanying emotional memory has symbolized for me what happens when an empathic urge to do something is not acted upon: we might move on from the experience, but we will never forget it. (an excerpt from Teaching Empathy: A blueprint for caring, compassion, and community).

On April 1st, The Teaching Empathy Institute, a program of the Tides Center, will open its doors in Kingston, NY. The Institute will work with schools and communities in New York’s Hudson River Valley, cultivating emotionally and physically safe learning communities where students are nurtured, supported, and encouraged toward their unique expression and achievement in the world.  All students need to feel that there is a place reserved just for them in their school. In The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness, the late Stephen Covey wrote of the need to find a voice and then to express this voice to the world.  This voice is what we hear when students freely share the things they love to do.  A school (and school district) has its own voice as well, a voice that has the potential to sing in celebration of the passion, the achievements, and the many joys of students and teachers.  This is the voice of belonging, a touchstone for many young people who need to feel the affirmation of a caring learning environment. The first step in creating such an environment is for all of the adults in the school, to realize how significant a role they can play in the lives of their students.

Many adults, when looking back on empowering moments in their childhood, point to a teacher or other significant adult who helped them to recognize their unique talents.  Likewise, literature on resilience often points to teachers as the catalysts in a child’s ability to overcome troubling circumstances at pivotal moments in their lives. The Teaching Empathy Institute will promote educators who consciously pave the way for their students’ new life trajectories, help students learn to believe in each other, and to become equal members in a school and community culture that is caring, compassionate and community-oriented.


In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be keeping you updated on our work in hopes that you’ll join us in what I am calling an empathy consciousness movement for our schools and communities. Until then, happy early spring!




Kindness can be taught and encouraged


By talking about kindness and recognizing it as it occurs, we highlight it as something worthy. It is a natural inclination to make kind choices, and it feels good too. Once, while leading a conversation with a class of 8th graders in the Bronx, NY, I asked if any had ever reached out to help someone they did not know. Many shared experiences from the neighborhood, recounting stories such as helping a woman from a neighboring building carry her groceries up three flights of stairs, volunteering to walk alongside an elderly man as he crossed a busy street, and standing up for a kid who was being hassled by some other kids. Everyone sitting in the circle that day felt good in the telling and in the listening to each other’s stories of good deeds done. The class came to a collective consciousness that it feels good to offer kindness to others, especially if you’re acting from an authentic place, rather than from a place of obligation.

Brazilian educator and social activist Paolo Freire taught people to appreciate what they already knew—to take control of their own knowledge and to create their own educations through a process he called “naming the world.” We can name the world of kindness by providing opportunities for young people to volunteer. Working in a soup kitchen, visiting a senior citizen’s home to spend time with someone who might be feeling alone, and taking part in a fundraiser to help others in need are three ways to do so. When we provide opportunities for young people to practice kindness toward others and invite them to talk about the experience, they internalize the truth in the phrase to give is to receive.

Happy Thanksgiving!


As educators intentionally build connecting, trusting and safe relationships with their students, in the process they are creating positive, meaningful and everlasting emotional memories for that child as well.  If this process of intentional emotional imprinting grew to become a cultural norm practiced by all in a classroom, then all students and staff would feel good about being in school on most days.  This positive emotional meter is the demonstration of what some of the literature on group dynamics would call group resonance.

Daniel Goleman and his colleagues in the book Primal Leadership: Learning to lead with emotional intelligence, define resonance as “a reservoir of positivity that brings out the best in people.”  Resonance is not a program or process but starts with an intention that focuses on the positive energy that flows and the high achievement that is attained, when people in a learning organization honor and trust one another.  It’s like the feeling a person gets when he or she is standing in the middle of something he loves to do. This could be thoughts and memories of a family vacation spot, a hike to a particular spot in the woods, the look on the face of your child when she is happy, a room in your home where you can find some peace and solace, or when listening to a favorite song or performer.

If a school is a place where resonant moments are the norm, amazing and magical things will happen.  Renee Levi who has studied resonance in organizations writes:

occurrences of resonance between individuals and within groups happen every day in situations in which people come together and experience intimacy and bonding, a felt sense of being in the flow or transcending, personal transformation, and sometimes the satisfaction of accomplishing extraordinary things.

If through the deep connection a resonant experience provides, a school can initiate its students toward their growing edge:  where academic learning, social and emotional development, and unique expression is attained, then a resonant classroom must be the primary intention for where we want our students to be every day.

Reflective Practice: A pathway to empathy

Social and emotional learning in practice  promotes an inner journey by the professionals who are integrating SEL into their schools and classrooms. The late Donald Schon, an organizational learning theorist, professor, and author, in his work posited that a healthy learning organization is the outgrowth of reflective practice. He defines reflective practice as “the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning”. The focus on continuous learning is key because it represents the challenge of doing things differently if current practices are not working as well as they could be.

A reflective practitioner steps back mindfully; seeking unique responses to every day challenges and learns from this reflective mindset.   The field of education is one of the only professions where practitioners are not provided on a regular basis with opportunities to reflect on their practices and share with their colleagues what they have discovered.  In the field of medicine for example, if a discovery is made or a frustration is felt, doctors come together to explore what can be done and how things can be done better, collectively seeking to serve the greater good.  This practice might serve to save a person’s life.

Teachers, who come together as reflective practitioners, might also be saving the life of a student, or at least helping to create a happier and more productive one. Reflective practice is the foundation of an emotionally safe school as it serves many functions. Whether in the classroom with students, team room with committee members, or faculty room with colleagues, reflective practice will enhance the quality of the school experience, making it more positive, efficient, and effective.

Changing the response

The first step and probably the most challenging one to take for the reflective practitioner is to look within at our tendencies and the internal struggles we have with students, colleagues and parents.  We will start by looking at the relationships a teacher has with students.

Answer this question:

What do kids do that drive you crazy?

This question is framed in this way because there are times when a student’s behavior is confusing, frustrating and emotionally draining. It is in these times when it is critical to analyze what responses are not working.  In 1987, long before the best selling book Chicken Soup for the Soul was created, I heard Jack Canfield, one of its editors, speak at an educational conference in Vermont.  In his talk, he presented the equation:

 E + R = O

 The event plus your response equals the outcome

Since first hearing it, I have shared this little equation with many teachers with great impact in workshops and training experiences.  The critical practice is to focus your energies on the R of the equation. The only thing that will happen if you try to change the event or blame the event for what is happening is to feel frustration and eventually burnout. It is far more empowering and less stressful to articulate what you have control over in your life.

In the life of an educator, if you can determine what you do have influence over, and focus your emotions there, you will not only be more effective but happier as well.  E + R = O symbolizes the work we do every day: we can make a difference in the lives of our students. What derails us at times is when we take the behaviors of our students personally. Once this happens, our effectiveness wanes and our energy for the work is lessened.

Let’s return to the question: What do kids do that drive you crazy?

 Driving you crazy is another way of saying that you react emotionally rather than rationally. Emotional reactions to the behaviors that push your buttons can be traced back to some of the personal values that direct our lives.

 Emotional Imprints

One’s personal values are learned at a very young age from the people and events that surround us.  These experiences are known as emotional imprinting and they lay the architecture for the emotional structure of our lives. An imprint, like a tattoo is a forever phenomenon. Imprints are non-negotiable  and are most profound in the first 15 years of life.  They come at us as value statements or family mores and belief systems. Through the years, our imprints are embedded on our psyche and we are often unaware that they even exist.

An example of an imprint is punctuality. If it was instilled into you that you better be home for dinner on time or you would be in trouble, the imprinted value is that being on time is important and a message that punctuality is a sign of respect. A second imprint from this example is that it is important to eat dinner together as a family.  Many years later, this trait of punctuality is a good thing.  People know they can count on you as someone who will always be on time.  Additionally, if you have a family, you most likely hold the belief that it is important to have dinner together when you can. You place a high “value” on this.  However, as with all things there is the other side as well.  The polarity experience plays out when a student arrives late to class or hands a paper in late. If your imprint is strong enough you might react from an emotional and irrational place and damage the relationship in the process.  It is not about being right or wrong or letting go of the things important to you. More so, it is about knowing not only what is important to you but also why you value this so much and even deeper, what are the imprints of your students?

A quick litmus test for what your imprints are is to identify what your buttons or trigger points are. In other words, what do your students do that drive you crazy and in the process makes you react in irrational or destructive ways?  This same reflection can be applied to all of your professional relationships with colleagues, supervisors and parents.  If your imprints unconsciously drive you, you might not get the desired outcome from your professional relationships.  Again, it is not so much to change your imprints but to make yourself aware of them. Even if upon reflection you reject certain imprints or belief systems from your childhood, in times of stress you often will return to what is most familiar, not necessarily what makes the most sense.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ) references how a person manages his or her emotions when under pressure.  The entry point for developing one’s eq is self-awareness of how you respond toward others in stressful situations in a way that enhances success and happiness in work and life.  This takes a great deal of self-reflection and in order to feel safe in exploring new ways of responding, there needs to be the conditions of a supportive and nurturing school culture in which caring, compassion and trust are the norm. When people feel connected within (understanding how they feel and why), and then seek to create empathic and compassionate connections with others, success and achievement will flourish because motivation will be high. EQ in practice helps people have what Dr. William Glasser, author of  The Quality School, calls a needs satisfying experience, one in which a person’s emotional needs are being met.

Often, when people think of measuring a person’s abilities and performance, IQ (intelligence quotient) is initially what comes to mind.  IQ, which on some level is a part of the paradigm of standardization and high stakes testing, lives at the surface in what is often considered to be the hard path towards gaining a competitive advantage: how smart you are.  EQ, which is sometimes referred to as how you are smart, lies beneath the surface, along what many consider to be the soft path. EQ skills are not soft at all but ultimately necessary, not only as a measurement of success but also as an entry point to meaningful school, work, and life experience.

Creating the conditions for a safe school

The idea of school safety conjures up images of single points of entry, signing in at the front of the school, showing identification to security personnel, and wearing a name badge.  These are all relatively new physical safety practices for schools and yet are necessary when it comes to protecting the children (and staff) in our schools.

The companion to physical safety practices is another form of safety known as emotional safety which is just as critical only more elusive.  Both forms of safety stem from by getting one’s physical and emotional needs met. Whether one references Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, or William Glasser’s articulation of the Quality School, all children have a set of both physical and emotional needs and their behaviors stem from the drive to get those needs met.  Schools meet the physical needs of their students by providing breakfast, lunch and a warm building (in the winter), thereby meeting the need for food and shelter.   The greater challenge for schools lies in meeting a child’s emotional needs because it requires a finely tuned set of emotional competencies to determine what emotional needs are unmet and what strategies of implementation are necessary to meet them.

According to the work of William Glasser, there are four emotional needs:

  1. Belonging/affiliation
  2. Power/competence
  3. Freedom/voice
  4. Fun/engagement

This list of needs is a blueprint for emotional safety. When they are met, the student’s motivation will be high, their behavior will be pro-social, and a high-level of trust between teacher and student and student and student, will be the norm.  If however, a need is unmet, the child’s behavior will reflect it as the environment will feel unsafe emotionally.

In the literature on emotional safety, of all the identified emotional needs, the primary emotional condition necessary for a sense of safety and trust is belonging.  This above everything else, points a school in the direction of emphasizing the impact of positive relationship building with youth as a primary practice toward emotional safety.

Definitions of Emotional Safety

When emotional safety is defined, the central themes are: belonging, affiliation and trust.

  • In psychology,emotional safety refers to an emotional state achieved in attachment relationships wherein each individual is open and vulnerable. (Catherall, 2007)
  • A feeling that your inner most thoughts, feelings and experience are, and will be, honored as one honors themselves. You need not prove, nor impress; you just simply are. (King, 2011)
  • Emotions and Safety are defined in Oxford dictionary as “a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others” and “the condition of being protected from or unlikely to cause danger, risk, or injury”.(
  • An emotionally safe environment is one which has clear expectations regarding the safety of all students. Bullying is not tolerated. Conflict resolution skills are taught and modeled by teachers. (R. A. Hirsh, 2004)

Critical Practices for Building Emotional Safety

As a  school seeks to comprehensively meet the emotional needs of its students, the following interrelated practices must be put into place:

  1. All school staff seeks to build trusting relationships with the students.
  2. A learning community of belonging is implemented and maintained school-wide.
  3. Relevant and authentic learning experiences are designed to engage all learners.
  4. A strong and collaborative support system is in place that focuses its efforts on meeting the social, emotional, and academic needs of all students.
  5. Student expectations are clearly stated and are consistently expected with predictable and logical consequences.

As each of these emotional safety building practices evolve into the cultural norms of a school, the conditions for each student to succeed academically, socially, and emotionally are created.

Teaching with sacred intent

In  psychologist Jean Houston’s book A Passion for the Possible,  her view into the human experience, sees our existence as part of the greater whole, inviting us  to re-frame who we are through our connections with new people in new situations. She speaks of how “soul making requires that you die to one story to be reborn to a larger one.” The entry point to one’s larger “soul story” is through what Dr. Houston refers to as the Sacred Wound.  The wounding becomes sacred when we are willing to release our old stories and to become the vehicles through which the new story may emerge.

As we respond to a child’s sacred wound, we are drawn to certain facets of it, based on our own life experiences. This is called “matching pictures,” meaning-that the issues we are drawn to, the student’s behaviors we are most affected by, the ones that really push our buttons-are reflections of our own issues and our own work. As we teach, support, nurture, and love our students, we are doing the same for ourselves. This is the way of the teacher, and some would say, the way of the healer, as well.

Human development professor and child psychologist Emmy E. Werner in her work on resiliency refers to bonding as a protective factor. A protective factor is an “individual or environmental safeguard that enhances a youngster’s ability to resist stressful life events and promote adaptation and competence leading towards future success in life.” Dr. Werner calls these successful people resilient; despite the presence of multiple risk factors at an early age, they are able to demonstrate the attributes of a person with “self-righting tendencies” with the capacity to spring back, rebound, successfully adapt in the face of adversity, and develop social competence, despite exposure to severe stress Her description of the resilient child portrays someone whose wound has become sacred, through its vulnerability and raw state, the psyche has opened up enough to let in the conscious realization of just how wonderful, beautiful, talented, and powerful that person is.

If teachers honor their students by listening to each unique voice and by intentionally creating emotionally safe settings, there will be a greater hope for the students to grow up whole. The word whole meaning “healthy” or “sound,” comes from the word heal. To be healed or whole indicates someone who is resilient. Emmy Werner’s simple description of a resilient young adult as someone who “loves well, works well, and plays well” is what we as teachers can help nurture and create. Our role is to illumine each student to a place of awareness and understanding, a place where that young person is fully engaged within each moment.

This comes about by intentionally creating a sacred classroom space where honor and authenticity are the norm, and connectedness is the outcome. To be authentic means to be truly intimate-opening one’s heart to others. When a group’s collective heart is open, caring, compassion, and empathy abound. This magical experience is not often what happens in groups, much less classrooms, and the creation of a group experience of this type is one of our greatest challenges as educators.

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The Spiral of Life

So often, people have lamented to me that after all of the inner work they have done, they find themselves right back in the same place once more; they have traveled a circle and are repeating one of their many unhealthy life patterns. My response to that perception is, “Before, when you were here, you didn’t know what was happening. Now you do, and that understanding makes a huge difference.” It’s not really a circle that we travel, but a spiral up, for we are forever climbing. As we climb higher up the spiral, we may come around to familiar or old places, but we can also change how we choose to experience these places. This is what is known as changinge one’s mindset and is something we can consciously provide for our students-opportunities to change one’s way of seeing the world to elicit a different outcome. This truth is expressed in the equation E + R = 0: The event plus your response equals your outcome. Instead of blaming the event for our outcomes, we can feel the power of what happens when we consciously change our responses. This awareness is part of the work of our soul, as it journeys through this lifetime on its spiraled, healing path.

As we move up the spiral toward knowledge, truth, and wisdom, we occasionally meet a mentor along the way who is on her own path of learning and who is there in that moment to help us explore our innate gifts and talents-to change our mindsets perhaps. A mentor is someone who has traveled further along the spiral with more experience, and a teacher can serve the role of mentor for the student. In Emmy Werner’s work on protective factors, she says that these are people who “foster trust and a sense of coherence or faith, and ‘second chance’ opportunities in society at large, which enable high-risk youths to acquire competence and confidence”. It takes great effort and commitment and requires the teacher to have the courage to look into the mirror of the images his or her students are reflecting back and to see these images as projections of the self. In the end, it will all be worth it, for as each soul is deeply touched (including the teacher’s), passion for one’s work as a significant adult in the life of a child will reign, and that is what it means to be teaching with sacred intent.

resilience in practice

For Real

Life’s Individual Educational Plan

Those of us who work with children too often see the emotional impact current life circumstances have on our students. The typical “helping response” is to label, test, or separate in order to manage the unhealthy behaviors which we encounter. A young person’s painful experiences need not be a way of life, but rather, potentially an opening to another way of being, with new power amidst life’s possibilities.

Within the context of the big curriculum author Gary Zukav refers to as Earth School, each individual comes into the human experience with a life IEP (Individual Educational Plan), and it is our responsibility to nurture the realization of this plan by encouraging the unique expression of each student’s life story.

 A gift of hope

If we as teachers can see our classrooms as filled with amazing children in development, coming to wholeness through the human experience, then we can help facilitate and nurture the realization of their life IEPs by way of the types of settings we intentionally create and the loving messages we deliver.   We may not always see the immediate results of our efforts with our students, but somewhere deep within each child is a forest with rich fertile soil. This soil is waiting to be tended, tilled, nurtured, and enlivened with the nutrients of love and compassion. We call what we teach “life skills” or “social skills,” but another perspective on what we could teach is offered by vision quest guide Bill Plotkin, who guides people in the practice of what he calls Soulcraft.  “Soulcraft is a set of experiences, ceremonies, and processes” , which help an individual unearth his or her life purpose by interacting with one’s inner self to strengthen the realization of that purpose. Getting in touch with one’s life purpose provides greater depth of meaning and passion in one’s life and often awakens a person who has been dulled by a lack of meaning in his or her life-something that often happens to children in school.

Soulcraft in the Classroom

In a classroom setting, the teacher can facilitate the practice of soulcraft through such things as taking her students outside and writing poems, songs, or stories; reflecting on the experience, guiding students in visualizations or imaginative journeys, journal writing, working or reading in “contemplative” or sacred silence, establishing classroom rituals, and by creating ceremonies or celebrations-all within the context of the school experience. When a teacher begins each day or week, for example, with the students sitting in a circle, taking turns sharing while others listen, asking questions and summarizing back to the speaker what is being said and felt, an honorable practice is taking place within the context of a ritual: the class meeting. When a student sits in a special cozy chair at the head of a circle and is asked questions by his or her classmates (practicing honor language), about something of which he or she is proud, this is a ceremony of celebration known as the Circle of Honor. One of my favorite practices is to have students write songs about life’s joys and successes, struggles and challenges. We then create original melodies, record the songs, and share them in a Circle of Honor Ceremony. Practices like these open students up to the way of the soul in a safe and nurturing way. When our souls are opened, the impact, though not always seen in that moment, is nonetheless profound and everlasting, creating a shift in the life of that person.

The Need for Love

There is a place of emptiness, which lives inside each of us. It is a longing which comes out of our need for a soulful experience and is expressed so eloquently by songwriter Bob Franke (1983) in this excerpt from his song For Real:

There’s a hole in the middle of the prettiest life,

so the lawyers and the prophets say,

Not your father, nor your mother,

nor your lover’s gonna ever make it go away,

And there’s too much darkness in an endless night

to be afraid of the way we feel,

Let’s be kind to each other, not forever, but for real.


Love is the glue, which helps put a broken and shattered life back together again into new and hopeful shapes. It is a power unlike any other. It is the friend who checks in on you when you’re feeling down or the unexpected card at the perfect time. Love is the feeling you get when you watch your three-day-old child sleeping peacefully in his cradle or the tears of the mother of that newborn. It is the momentary flash of inner peace one feels when watching the sunrise or the sense of inner contentment, which comes from the silence after a huge snowfall. Love is the truth which lives in the Swedish proverb:

Shared joy is double joy. Shared sorrow is half sorrow.

Love is what all children need, to be loved is to belong, to belong is to have a place, and to have a place is to be. To feel separate from others or unloved is essentially to feel “dismembered,” or cut off from the group. The opposite of dismember is to remember, and that is why it is critical to know and understand the life stories of our students and to respond to these stories in supportive, nurturing, and nonjudgmental ways. We need to create an environment that reconnects the young person to a world of safety and trust-to paint a new hopeful picture of what life can be with the certainty that it will be.

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