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!