The Times They Are A Changing

Come gather ’round people Wherever you roam And admit that the waters Around you have grown

And accept it that soon You’ll be drenched to the bone If your time to you Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’ Or you’ll sink like a stone For the times they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan

In February, 2009, I was driving over the George Washington Bridge into New York City on my way to teach in the South Bronx at PS 114.  I had the radio on, listening to a live broadcast by CNN of the International Prayer Breakfast that is held in Washington, D.C. every year.  President Obama less than a month into his presidency was speaking.  In his speech he said the following:  We know too that whatever our differences, there is one law that binds all great religions together. Jesus told us to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” The Torah commands, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” In Islam, there is a hadith that reads “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.” And the same is true for Buddhists and Hindus; for followers of Confucius and for humanists. It is, of course, the Golden Rule – the call to love one another; to understand one another; to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth. ps 20 convo As I listened to our new president, I smiled with pride, for I was reminded of the truth that resonated in his words: now, more than ever, is the time to unearth empathy, the missing relationship ingredient in so many of our lives.  We are all in this together and by consciously seeking a better world for others we can make the world a better place for ourselves. In my briefcase on that day I had a copy of the book “Change We Can Believe In”  which contained summaries of what then candidate  Obama’s plan  was To Renew America’s Promise. I had carried that book with me every day over the last six weeks of the 2008 presidential campaign.   Motivated by what I had just heard, I walked into my first  class, a group of 5th grade students, and we talked about empathy and the golden rule. We focused upon ways we could put our conversation into action, to make it more than just a bunch of words that sounded good. Midway through the lesson, I held up President Obama’s book in my hand and covered up his name. I showed the students the words and read them aloud: “Change we can believe in.”  Then I uncovered his name and they smiled widely at this person who for many of them symbolized hope and optimism.Three months later, President Obama selected Sonia Sotomayor  as his choice for Supreme Court nominee.  Sotomayor, who grew up in a housing project less than two miles away from PS 114 was chosen in part he said because she fit the “empathy standard” as a judge who could make decisions from her heart.  This drew criticism from people who cited the position that emotion should not play a role in court decisions. Emotion is not always seen as rational thinking and rational thinking is the essence of a Justice’s responsibility.  Actually, empathy is rational thinking at its best for it underscores the truth that underneath our cloaks of values, religious beliefs, race, nationality and so on, is the truth that we are all humans with beating hearts. dylanobama


I have a dream for schools: Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In my empathy building work with children in schools all over the country, inevitably a student will bring up The Golden Rule and this will open up the conversation to exploring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.  The mere mention of Dr. King in a classroom is always associated with his “I Have a Dream” speech.

When I was a middle school teacher, as a part of my social skills curriculum, I would give an assignment to my students to write a speech articulating their dreams for our class and school. These dreams ranged from wanting healthier food in the cafeteria and more recess time for play, to fairness and equal treatment for all of their peers. It was often a sweet moment when a young person in the process of moving toward adulthood gave voice to a vision, a hope…a dream.

It’s been a long time since I gave that assignment, so I’m going to share my dream for schools right now:

I have a dream that one day all children will feel safe and secure in their classrooms.

That no one will experience the ridicule of teasing, harassment, or bullying and instead experience the joy, support and love of a classroom and school community.

I have a dream that all adults will be able to focus on the child and not the test score.

That all parents will be invited to be a part of their child’s school experience.

That teachers will be honored for the role they play in our society.

I have a dream that empathy and compassion will be seen as critical learning standards for future success and happiness.

That social and emotional learning initiatives will not be seen as add-ons but as essential to the development of the whole child.

And that all children will be seen as children, provided with the time, space, nurturance and love they richly deserve.

Yes I have a dream today that the legacy we leave our children is that we empower them to leave their own legacies, with their own gifts, talents and voices, and that in the end, we mentor them on how to make the world a better place than the one they entered on the day they were  born.

A version of this post originally appeared in the Ashoka Blog Startempathy

The Alchemy of a Loving Teacher

I used to keep this little book on my desk at school by Gerald Jampolsky called Teach Only Love. It is a book about the medical and healing benefits of focused love and positive perspective as attitudinal healing agents. Once a week, I would read some of the author’s accounts of children he had worked with; their intuitive vision into the intentional vibrations of adults, and the therapeutic impact those vibrations have. I  read these passages in the early morning stillness of my classroom as a ritual of reflection, before the students arrived. This was my way of creating a focused intention for the day ahead with my students. An intention that was grounded in appreciation for the opportunity I had to touch each of my student’s lives in some way, recognizing that the smallest interaction in the tiniest of moments could create an emotional memory potentially affecting and transforming the child for the rest of his or her life. This was also the beginning of my vision of the classroom as a sacred container: a place where all students felt emotionally safe through the deep and meaningful connections alive there. In the book Presence by Peter Senge and his colleagues they write about containers and transformation:

The ancient alchemists, in their attempts to transform base metals to gold, created a large body of literature on container building, ideas that Swiss psychoanalyst C. G. Jung claimed were as much about psychological as material transformation. For the alchemists, transformation was a process involving the interaction of elements within a closed, transparent container in relation to a carefully tended fire (Senge et. Al. pp. 34, 35)

In a school, the gold is belonging and emotional safety, the container is the classroom, and the fire is held within the relationships aglow there. Author and youth advocate,  Martin Brokenleg,  once said “programs don’t fix kids, relationships do.” Conversation and conversion come from the same linguistic root and when in conversation and relationship with a student, a healthy conversion or transformation is always possible. Most often it is within the space of one’s daily micro-interactions that meaningful connections are built.   I focus on the littlest of things which often turn out to be the biggest connectors: a glance, a smile, a handshake, a positive comment, a non-judgmental response, a thank you; all potentially resonant moments within the container which could translate into a moment forever in the heart and soul of the child who I am sharing that life space with.

I have always felt that the teaching profession is a noble and courageous undertaking. The opportunity to touch a child’s life in the littlest of ways is a rare gift and must be seen in that light. Children must be seen as the native elders see them, as sacred beings, (Brokenleg) precious and vulnerable. So vulnerable in fact that the slightest bit of judgment or harsh criticism can change a sacred being into a scared one. Students must not “survive” the school experience but feel embraced by it.   Seeing others through resonant eyes is a celebration of life, basking in the joys of self-discovery and expression; honoring what others can bring to your life and what you can bring to theirs. Nobility is filled with many gifts and it’s the Sacred Beings in our midst who provide the most heart-felt ones. These gifts become signposts or reminders of why you have chosen to travel the road of educator, mentor, and guide.

Serial, This American Life, and The Empathy Code

You might be wondering what the relationship is between Serial,  a production of  the weekly radio show This American Life, and this blog on creating empathic schools. Here’s my take. The 12 episode podcast which retraces  the case of Adnan Syed, an 18 year old high school senior from Baltimore County, Maryland, who was convicted in 2000 of murdering his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee, is about real life and real people;  a tragic situation that continues with a level of uncertainty to this day.

What keeps drawing me in as I have listened to the story of Adnan and his case, are the social dynamics that exist in the lives of high school students, the social drama that drives their decisions, and how emotional events become embedded as emotional memories. Daniel Goleman in his work on emotional intelligence speaks of emotional memories, and for me,  as an educator whose focus since my earliest days of teaching has been on creating emotionally safe learning communities, this idea has always intrigued me. Since I first came across Dr. Goleman’s work I have been devoted to making  my classroom emotionally safe. I want school to be a place for children where their memories of learning and the people they learn with (including their teachers) are positive.

As far as Serial goes, host Sarah Koenig  and her production team have done a  masterful job of  presenting the findings of their investigative work  from police interviews, and court documents and recordings from 14 years ago.  In addition, Sarah throughout the podcast, weaves in taped interviews with many of Adnan’s and Hae’s classmates, teachers, family and friends; all conducted in the past 16 months. 

Although Serial concluded right before Christmas, my wife and I are a little behind (that happens when you have kids), and have two more episodes to go. We are hooked and anxious, and can’t wait to find out what is going to be presented at the show’s conclusion.

The executive producer of Serial, Ira Glass, is also the host and producer of  the aforementioned This American Life which is a favorite in our home. The show from WBEZ in Chicago, is about our culture, the people within our culture, the lives they live, and the stories their lives have to tell.

In September, 2012, in an episode called Back to School,  Ira spoke with Paul Tough, author of the book How Children Succeed. During the conversation, Paul uses the term “non-cognitive skills” as a descriptor of an alternative view into a kind of intelligence that cannot be measured by standardized testing. He speaks of “qualities like tenacity, resilience and impulse control,” and how a certain segment of the school reform movement sees these types of skills as being critical to the happiness and life success of the students in our schools. I agree.

There are other guests and I strongly encourage you to listen to the entire show. It is worth the 57 minutes and will clarify why this work on teaching empathy and other social and emotional skills is vitally important for our schools.  So, to help prepare you for a deep dive into non-cognitive skill development (also known as social and emotional learning or character traits development), here is a list of recommendations I call The Empathy Code which when practiced within a school create the culture building guidelines for non-cognitive or social and emotional learning.

The Empathy Code

  1. The principal is supportive: This person is child oriented, is an effective listener, provides staff with numerous opportunities to work collaboratively, encouraging innovative efforts, and is available to those who wish to speak with him or her.
  2. Social skills are taught and modeled : Whatever social behaviors are practiced by the adults in the school will not only be observed and experienced by the students but will  be learned by them  as well.
  3. Mindfulness is cultivated as a daily practice and connected to empathy in practice. “Mindfulness is a conscious, purposeful way of tuning in to what is happening in and around us.” (Schoeberlein)
  4. Eradicate sarcasm: Whether used as a humorous strategy or a controlling tactic, sarcasm intimidates and bullies the students. The staff member who relies on this approach does an injustice to his or her students by teaching sarcasm as a social strategy.
  5. Keep it simple: There is no need to have multiple initiatives.   Simple does not mean trivial but means focused and meaningful. The most significant empathic practices occur through the micro-interactions that take place throughout the school day between the teacher and student. The littlest things can make the biggest difference in a child’s life.
  6. Build a sense of community: The fundamental belief in a school that places a priority on teaching empathy is that all members of the school population deserve to feel connected through the cultivation of helpful and positive relationships.

The Past, Present and Future

So, to bring this piece full-circle, I return to the initial question about the relationship between Serial (and This American Life) and creating empathic and compassionate schools. Serial tells a story about the human condition; about something that happened in the past that still has an impact on many lives today.  This American Life  highlights the social culture in which we live; telling stories most often about people in the present.  The Empathy Code is about the future, for it summarizes the cultural conditions necessary to create empathic schools, and the children in these schools are the future changemakers, decision makers and world leaders. Keeping the  noble responsibility that comes with being an educator in mind, the argument about infusing non-cognitive skills and social and emotional learning  into our educational framework is not an argument at all but a prerequisite for school and life success.

Building a caring classroom culture: An action plan

A caring culture frees students to attain the highest possible levels of social and academic achievement. The journey is not always easy; often, both teachers and students must develop new habits of thought and action. But the rewards are immeasurable.

The first step is to paint a picture of the classroom culture you want to create. You can do this by answering the following four questions:

  1. What do my students need to succeed? All students have emotional needs: the need for belonging and acceptance, the need for personal power and self-competence, the need for independence and self-responsibility, and the need for meaningful and healthy relationships. When you create a needs-based learning environment in your classroom, students will be motivated, enthusiastic, and ready for the many challenges of the school experience.
  1. What principles do I need to instill in my classroom in order to meet my students’ needs? Like a compass, your principles guide you and your students, helping everyone stay on course along your shared journey. Here are two examples of classroom principles:
  • Healthy classroom relationships are just as important as high test scores.
  • All students will be given a chance to demonstrate their gifts and talents.
  1. What behavioral guidelines would I like to see my students follow? Behavior is the visible, practical expression of your guiding principles. So, for example, if one of your guiding principles is that all students support each other, the corresponding behavioral guideline might be:
  • If a student asks for clarification of something he or she does not understand, other students will listen patiently and attentively.
  1. What social skills are most important to help my students behave in a principles-based fashion? Once you have identified critical social skills, determine how you will teach them and how they can be made part of everyday life in your classroom. For example, if listening is one of the skills you choose, you might do the following:
  • Post the guidelines for focused listening in a prominent place in your classroom.
  • Provide students with opportunities to practice focused listening.
  • Remind students of the guidelines whenever they are involved in activities that involve listening (such as class discussions or group work).

Soulful Skills

When asked, students will often say that social skills are skills  you use with other people. Someone who is adept socially and emotionally usually makes healthy and positive connections with others and finds happiness and success in life. Research shows that students enrolled in programs that teach social skills as part of a social and emotional learning program, are happier and more successful in school.

Soulful skills are also important, however. Soulful skills are skills you use with yourself to explore your inner nature. They allow you to look at what is in your heart, to celebrate what you find there, and to express your life purpose through action. When teachers have asked themselves the courageous questions to unlock their own soulful skills, they find the ability to unlock the soulful skills in students as well.

By creating a culture of caring in your classroom, you offer students an environment where they are nurtured, supported, and encouraged. You unlock the expression, imagination, and passion held within each child’s heart. When you listen-really listen-to your students and show that you understand them, you foster their connection not only to you, but also to their innermost selves.


A School of Belonging: A different standard

In this age of standards, high-stakes testing, curriculum stressors, and societal pressures on students and educators, classroom time is precious.  When only academic performance is measured and evaluated, it can seem overwhelming to take time out of the school day to meet students’ social and emotional needs. But when those needs are met, students feel excited about the discoveries each new day will bring; achievement soars; behaviors such as bullying, name-calling, and teasing diminish; and the classroom functions more effectively and efficiently.

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 has its own voice as well, a voice that sings in celebration of the passion, the achievements, and the many joys of students and teachers. This voice-the voice of belonging-is 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 the teacher to realize how significant role they play in the lives of their students.

Many adults, when looking back on childhood and adolescence, point to a teacher or other significant adult who helped them recognize the unique talents they could offer the world. Literature on resilience often makes the point that when a teacher believes in a troubled child, that teacher invites the child to believe in him-herself at a time when the child may feel that no one does. A School of Belonging is staffed with significant adults who consciously pave the way for their students’ new life trajectories-and who help students learn how they can believe in each other and become equal members in a culture of caring.

The opportunity to positively influence a child’s life is a precious and noble gift. Where do you start?

You must begin by articulating the vision you have of yourself by asking:

  • What is my life’s work?
  • How do I explore this calling on a daily basis, in words and deeds?

These are important  questions, and it takes courage to answer them.  But once you do so, your vision will become clearer, and ways of manifesting your vision in your work with students will come to your mind by way of your heart.  finding your own voice and your own passion is key to helping students find theirs.danica and rhys

Empathy as a consciousness movement

A Word Appeared

In early December of 1989, while working as a visiting teacher for schools throughout the Northeastern United States, I had an unusual experience with a group of 5th grade students. It was a snowy morning in Portland, Maine, and I was teaching a lesson I called “Real life Conversations” in The Longfellow Elementary School, for the Portland City School District. At one point, I asked the students why others in school were often treated unfairly, and as I turned to the blackboard poised to record their answers, an image of a blank picture frame appeared on the board. Looking closely inside the frame, a word was showing itself to me; capitalized in bold letters I saw…


I drew a blank frame and wrote the word EMPATHY on the inside exactly as I was “seeing” it. I stood there quietly for a moment and then said “Please silently read the word I have written inside the empty frame.” After a few moments of silence, I had a student read the word aloud for the class and then I continued… “Empathy is being able to see inside someone else’s “picture”, understanding what they are going through and making caring choices based on what you see.” Prior to that moment, I had never contemplated teaching the word empathy to a group of students and I had no idea where this vision and its corresponding reflections were coming from.

Since that day, empathy has become my touchstone in everything I do. I have created lessons, given talks, conducted workshops, and been interviewed numerous times on the subject of empathy. Often, when working with others on this topic, it feels as if on that early winter’s day in 1989, in that small elementary school built in the 1930’s, I was given a glimpse into my life’s work: to teach how empathy in practice brings to life one of life’s greatest lessons: To treat others the way you would like to be treated.

In 2005, I wrote a book for schools called Teaching Empathy. Although I targeted the book primarily for teachers, since its release, many non-educators who have expressed their fascination that empathy can be learned and practiced as a way of living, have contacted me. I’ve had numerous spirited conversations on empathy, often charged with emotion and wonder. I have come away from these experiences with the perception that all people need to be conscious of how to manifest empathy in their own lives. It’s a paradox really, because although empathy seems to be about awareness for others, it’s really about having empathy for yourself, finding what brings you joy and meaning in your life, believing that you are here to express your uniqueness to the world, and opening up to what that expression might be.

In my work as a teacher, I have focused exclusively upon both children and the adults who work with them as part of my process, as part of my life’s work. And now, as I open up to expanding this work outside of the school community, I offer this blog to you as an expression of what I have learned. It is my hope that by focusing on the heartfelt practice of empathy, you will experience how joyful life can be each day within each moment. It really is an ancient concept, that we need each other if we are to survive. Technology in spite of all its magic, instant communication and informational capability, cannot provide the most basic emotional need; real-life human connection. Perhaps this is why there is an increasing number of people who feel cut off or dismembered from the human experience. Empathy is a journey of remembering to the human heart. It is a core heart skill and cutting edge practice for reconnection and self-discovery.

In this blog, I will tell you the story of my heart’s journey as an educator and parent and how along the way, I have come to realize that for schools, empathy is a necessary consciousness that is so often forgotten. In the many moments of bumping up against others, it is far too easy to label, judge, blame and dismiss. For some this is sport, for others it is habit, and for others it is a knee jerk reaction to someone who they see as getting in their way of success and happiness.