A few weeks ago, I asked my 5th graders to complete this prompt: Something I think you should know about me right now is____________. It was mid-January and seemed like a good time for a check-in. I was inspired to engage the class in this exercise after sensing an ongoing anxious energy among the students (tense body language, tears, distracted giggling). Maybe this would refocus us all, or at least help my homeroom to feel closer to one another. The students took a few minutes to journal on the prompt and then we met for morning meeting, like most days.
My original intention was for those entries to live in the students’ journals and maybe serve as a point of reference later on in the year. However, when I joined my students in the morning meeting circle, I felt something in the moment. There was vulnerability in the room. Perhaps the time was ripe to share and listen? So, I asked if anyone was interested. A hesitant hand raised, and a student shared her story. Afterwards, she smiled quietly and sat a little more comfortably. We sat in the silence of the room a few more moments. The heater behind my rocking chair whirred to life. I continued to sit, holding my breath and hoping that more children would share so that we didn’t lose this moment. Early in my teaching career, a mentor told me that wait time is sacred. A moment may feel like an eternity to a teacher, but a few more moments might open up a world of new revelations for a roomful of students.
So, I waited, eyes scanning around the circle. Suddenly, another hand rose. This student shared about feeling overwhelmed between school and after-school activities. She felt like she could never work hard enough on anything. I observed heads nodding in agreement and support around the circle. My own head bobbed as she spoke. A friend moved closer to put a gentle hand on the speaker’s arm. Another friend clasped the speaker in a hug as she tearfully finished sharing her message. As soon as this student finished speaking, another hand rose; then three more hands. While each student shared, the room fell quiet, except for the heater and the sound of snuffles and whispered words of encouragement. In the span of 45 minutes, from the time the students arrived until we wrapped up our emotional morning meeting, my class bonded more than we have all year. It was truly special!
Together we cried for the struggles, joys, happy, and hard times we all face. One student, in the middle of this intense communal experience commented aloud, “I never knew my classmates were going through these things.” This was my hope: to check in and remind us that, at the end of the day, we all want to feel safe and loved. So now my challenge is: How do I keep this vulnerability and empathy going? How do educators keep students feeling this safe in our classrooms as they move from grade to grade and teacher to teacher? Can one truly teach vulnerability, or is it something that you invite? These questions are just the tip of the iceberg for me as I continue in my practice.
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Empathy in the Classroom: Why Should I Care? -- Edutopia, Nov. 11, 2015
You Can’t Teach Kids Empathy, but These Picture Books Inspire It -- New York Times, August 25, 2017
Teaching Empathy: Evidence-based tips for fostering empathy in children -- Parenting Science