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Sympathy -vs- Empathy

Yesterday was a crazy day! I had finally woken up and realized I pressed snooze way too many times and now I was leaving late for work. Annoyed was an understatement. I dropped my daughter off and headed to Brooklyn. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I was already late, as I’m driving down the conduit, which is terrible during morning hours, a man rear ends me. 

I count 1…2…3…4…4…3…2…1…(something new I started doing to calm down), and got out of the car. The man was really apologetic, but I wasn’t really hearing it because thanks to him I was going to really be late to work! The police finally show up and the female officer was really rude and aggressive. I couldn’t understand it. I was the one minding my business driving to work and someone else hit my car. Yet she was here treating me like I committed some type of crime.

Needless to say, the cop took the report and left. I then went to start my car, and guess what didn’t happen, it didn’t start. I literally wanted to sit there and cry, but that wasn’t going to help me get my car started. Luckily the guy who hit me was still there and came and gave me a jump. The car turns on, but then so does my gas light, and I’m just like great, what else could go wrong.

I finally get to work, like right when the bell rings to start my first class. I was so annoyed, and felt really unprepared. Even though my lesson was already done and printed, there was just this uneasiness about feeling rushed.

The students begin coming into the classroom, as I’m writing the Opening Exercise on the board, with my huge coat still on. Before they even make it to their seats, the kids begin to complain about how cold it is in the classroom. In my head I’m literally rolling my eyes, because all I could think about was my morning and how the first thing they do is complain. Don’t get me wrong, they were completely right, the room was really cold. I reassured them that I would turn the heat on and that they could leave their coats on until the class warmed up.

The heat begins to boom, and the students get comfortable and take off their coats. It’s Monday morning, which chatter wise is just like Friday afternoon. The kids have so much to talk to each other about, and being that this is the first time they are seeing each other since the weekend, they’re using class time to discuss it. Normally, Monday mornings I ask about how their weekend was and give us a few minutes to discuss whatever they would like about their weekend. But since my morning was so terrible and rushed, I completely forgot to give them that time.

I’m about halfway into the lesson, and stop yet again to ask students to stop their side conversations and to pay attention. I was completely over it! A student raises his hand and asks, “yo Miss, what’s wrong? You don’t seem like yourself, you good?” Here I am thinking I’m masking my frustrations about my terrible morning, and the kids could see right through it. So I took the time to tell the kids about my morning. They must have asked about 75 questions. However, they were all really engaged and paying attention. Once the story and question session were done, the class went flawless. There were no side conversations, and everyone worked diligently.

It really made me think about our interactions with students, as teachers. I had a terrible morning, and wasn’t able to function in my normal capacity as a teacher because of it. I was annoyed, tired, and really irritable, to the point where my students noticed the change in my behaviors. They asked what was wrong, and when I told them it caused their behaviors to change. They saw I had a rough morning, and empathized with me. As a result, they were more conscious about their behaviors in an attempt to not add additional stress to what I had already endured.

Too often teachers have no empathy for students. They have no desire to relate to the students or find out what’s going on in their mind and in their worlds. Everyday students deal with racism, depression, homelessness, the effects of living in low income house holds, along with the emotions and day to day issues of just simply being a teenager. Too often teachers overlook what the students deal with outside of the school building, as if once students walk in all of their issues just disappear.

One day a student was asleep in class, which wasn’t normal for him, so I left him alone. At the end of the period I greeted him with friendly sarcasm. “Oh, good morning sir.” He laughed and told me, Miss I’m sooo tired you don’t understand how long my days are. I laughed and began to tell him my day to day. He then told me his day to day, how everyday he walks through the projects scared for his life. How he leaves right after to school to rush to work to help his mom pay bills and didn’t get off until 1 am. He tells me how his girlfriend isn’t understanding that he doesn’t have as much time to give her as he would like because he’s a kid with adult responsibilities.

If I didn’t take the time to talk to the student, I would have no way of knowing why his behaviors changed, or why they were what they were. I converse with teachers all of the time about either students that I’ve had in the past or even current students. What I get from those conversations is that teachers think the students want their teachers to feel bad for them. “Oh, they’re just looking for sympathy, or trying to make excuses.” When the reality is, students just want to know that you care and that you understand, EMPATHY.

Most of the time students choose not to share what they have going on for the very opposite reason. They don’t want anyone to feel bad for them, or treat them differently because of what they’re going through. I didn’t want the students to feel bad for me, about the morning I had. I wanted them to understand that I had a rough morning, and why my behaviors and demeanor had been different. There was no way the story would have come up, had not one of the students asked.

If you don’t ask your students what is happening with them, and why they are exuding these concerning behaviors they will never change. How can you know how to deal with a student, without knowing what’s bothering them… without having empathy? With my sleepy student, my response was “wow that is really late to get out of work, and then to have to be here by 8 am for first period I can definitely see why you’re tired. You have a lot going on, and it can’t be easy to balance all of that. But you’re a student, and that means you need to also be here and present. I understand you have a lot on your plate but you still need to get the school work done.” He completely agreed, apologized for falling asleep in class, and asked could he make up the work.

The standards for all students should be the same. But how you deliver those standards and balance in your empathy, is what will make you a great teacher. It will also cause your students to have more respect for you, because they know you care and only want what’s best for them.

I would love to hear (well read) your thoughts, comments, and/or similar experiences. Feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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Am I the only educator who still gets the first day of school jitters? I mean I’m going into my 9th year of teaching and still find myself rather restless the night before and morning of the first day


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