Most of us have worked with difficult people at some point in our life. Sometimes the reason your coworker is difficult to work with is obvious, but other times it is tough to put your finger on the reason why. There are just a series of small slights or annoying interactions that create a general and consistent atmosphere of dysfunction or irritation. As teachers, we often work with students who create the same atmosphere of dysfunction in the classroom or school. Again, I’m not talking about the obvious bully or outright defiant student exhibiting openly disruptive and subversive behavior, we’ll leave that discussion for another day. I’m talking about that student who can fly somewhat under the radar, but nevertheless, their presence in the classroom subtly, but regularly changes the environment for the worse.
When you think about those difficult students, what is the one quality that they shared which caused them to be so difficult? There may be any multitude of behaviors or attitudes that come to mind, but my guess is those attitudes and actions often begin with an inability to see the impact of their actions on others clearly.
You’ve probably tried a variety of behavior management strategies or systems in hopes of changing the student’s behavior, but nothing seems to make a lasting change. I believe this is because the typical behavior management strategies teachers most often employ tend to provide external constraint or motivation, rather than getting at the root cause of the matter, the student’s lack of empathy. This isn’t to say that we should abandon tried and true behavior management strategies, these are very important structures in the teacher’s toolbox. But we have to understand that empathy is perhaps the most critical of all human emotions, and without it, our students will continually struggle to build positive relationships so critical to a productive work environment.
Empathy is what ties us together as human beings. The ability to suspend our own interests and opinions long enough to listen to others and feel what someone else is feeling is critical to getting along and working as a team. Empathy increases trust and the integrity of communications. A lack of empathy undermines relationships and leads to misunderstandings and distrust. A lack of empathy results in selfishness and behavior that is counterproductive to the collaborative environment we should be striving to build in our classrooms. Long-term, it results in adults who undermine productivity and trust in the workplace.
It may not seem expedient at the moment, but if we take the extra time to guide students through personal reflection and help them understand how their attitudes and actions impact others, we have a shot at building our students’ capacity for empathy, which results in internal rather than external motivation to do what is right. It’s the long game, but the end result can be, not only more positive classroom environments but also more well-adjusted kids who move on from our schools with a greater capacity for empathy. In accomplishing this, we better prepare these students to become positive team players in the workplace and in their communities.
What are some strategies you use to help develop empathy in your students?