Empathy: We Need It Now More Than Ever

While listening to talk radio over the weekend, I heard an analyst posit that there has been an increase in violent shooter massacres across the world. As a rebuttal to the analyst’s statement, someone called in and asserted that there’s been no increase in these types of situations, just an increase in their media coverage, and that we’re more aware of these situations now because of social media and the 24-hour news coverage cycle.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, there actually has been an increase in these types of events. That being said, no one seems to agree on the root cause of these issues. Researchers, analysts, talking heads, and armchair experts have blamed these massacres on everything, including video games, popular movies and music, traumatic home lives, healthy diet imbalances, mental health issues (which may result from Adverse Childhood Experiences/trauma), etc.

Through my preliminary research, I’ve noted that it’s very difficult to isolate one variable as the root cause of these situations. Granted, in many cases, the perpetrators seem to come from broken homes where they may have experienced some sort of trauma that may have resulted in mental health issues. In no way am I downplaying that explanation. In fact, I agree that trauma and mental health issues probably contribute to the majority of these situations. However, I hypothesize that there’s another issue at play.

In my career as an educator, I’ve noticed something very troubling.   Many students (not all) have serious difficulty understanding someone else’s emotions, coupled with the inability to sense and understand how someone else is thinking or feeling. This is usually referred to as empathy. In my day-to-day experiences with students from a variety of grade levels, I’ve seen that many students don’t grasp the concept. Many students lack the ability to predict/foresee how their actions impact others or how their actions are perceived by others. Often times, they can’t put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They don’t conceptualize that, “Hmm. I wouldn’t like it if someone did this to me, so I probably shouldn’t do it to them.” I don’t know why students seem to lack empathy. What’s happening now that’s causing this major paucity of empathy? I can’t put my finger on it, yet.

Regardless, I try to employ certain practices/strategies/approaches that will help teach/display empathy. For instance, while dealing with behavior issues, I always employ Restorative Practices. For years, Restorative Practices have been touted/advertised as a way to decrease the school-to-prison pipeline, and subsequently decrease crime and other issues. Restorative Practices emphasize how our actions can harm our relationships with others and our community. While using these practices with students, we focus on our actions, the consequences, and how members of our school community feel as a result of our actions. Not only do we focus on the way our actions harm relationships, we brainstorm and implement solutions that help repair said harm.

What other ways can we inculcate our students with empathic dispositions? I know some schools have social-emotional curricula. But, I’m just looking for ways throughout my everyday interactions with students where I can help teach and model empathy.

Detainment: Thinking About the Future of Our Young and Innocent

This school year, I learned about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study (Felitti et al., 1998), which examined survey data from a questionnaire and found that both positive and negative childhood experiences have an immense impact on lifelong health. The survey included questions such as: did a parent in the household swear at you, put you down, humiliate you, or act in a way that made you afraid you might be physically hurt?; did you often feel that no one in your family loved you or thought you were important or special?; did you often feel that your family didn’t look out for each other, feel close to each other, or support each other?; did a household member go to prison?

The survey can be found here.

Based on the answers to the aforementioned questions, responses were tallied and correlated with future health outcomes. Some ACEs have been linked to future negative health outcomes such as alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and even early death. As the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk of negative health outcomes. ACEs were later categorized as an experience related to abuse, an experience related to neglect, or an experience related to household dysfunction. (This is a very brief summation of the study and is in no way exhaustive of the study methodology, results, discussion, etc.)

Since I learned about ACEs, I’ve been extremely interested in how ACEs impact physical and mental health throughout the rest of a child’s life. I am truly intrigued by how an adverse or traumatic experience during childhood can impact physical and cognitive development. While watching the news lately, I couldn’t help but ask myself how child detainment will impact the physical and cognitive development of all the children taken away from their parents. I’m no scholar when it comes to ACEs, but I’d venture to say that a child being detained and taken away from his/her parents is probably one of the most traumatic things he/she could ever experience.

From this perspective, I feel that any approach to solving a country’s myriad of problems that perniciously harms children obviously does more harm than good. In the immediate sense, this is clearly true. But, based on what we know about adverse child experiences and trauma and the lifelong harm they do, this harm will surely be long-lasting and impact these children for the rest of their lives.

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The Culmination of Another School Year

Woah! My district has 7 official school days left. But, the end of the school year has been a whirlwind! There are so many events both inside of school and after school! I don’t know if I’m coming or going!

Though the end of the year breeds chaos (organized chaos, mostly!), I always wonder the following at this crazy time:

  • It’s essential that we as teachers and teacher leaders continue learning and developing our craft. For many, summer is the best time for that continued professional development.
    • How do you encourage your staff/team to engage in professional learning during the summer?
  • What are some ways you celebrate the culmination of another school year (both with staff and students)?
    • I’m not saying learning should stop. But, I am saying that it’s essential to look back on the year, dialogue about goals met/not met, celebrate successes, analyze failures or obstacles, and plan for the future.
  • Some teachers take summer very seriously (for good reason). I’ve heard about some in the field of education who don’t check the work email for an entire three months!
    • How do you tactfully connect with your team over the summer (so as to not invade privacy or disturb their time with family)?
  • As leaders, it’s also important for us to take a step back and relax over the summer. I’m not very good at maintaining that work/life balance.
    • How do you disconnect and recharge over the summer?

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Reintegration: Essential for Schools AND the Real World Post Education

Historically, human justice systems have generally encompassed four main tenants of punishment: retribution, rehabilitation, deterrence, and incapacitation. Retribution refers to the idea of the punishment for a crime being proportionate to the harm caused by the offender. Rehabilitation, which is preventative in nature, supposes the offender requires some type of treatment or intervention to improve the mind and body. Ideally, deterrence uses punishment to dissuade potential offenders from choosing crime to begin with. Incapacitation refers to the possible permanent removal of an offender from society who is deemed too threatening.

It’s no secret. Crime results in offenders experiencing stigmatization. With crime, offenders often spend the rest of their lives with the stigma of being a criminal. In addition to experiencing this stigmatization, offenders are often then subject to other societal disadvantages (loss of the right to vote/difficulty finding gainful employment/constant stereotyping/etc.). If you work in a school, you may notice that this experience is not all that dissimilar to that of our students who exhibit behavioral issues. Our “problem kids/bad kids/behavior problems” (whatever you want to call them) are often stigmatized after exhibiting behavior problems in the classroom or in the school, and may be labeled as such. Considering that our self-identity is immensely impacted by how others view or label us, Lents and Kazemian (2017) state:

Individuals form their self-identity on the basis of how they perceive others to view them… Once individuals are marked by a deviant label (ex. Offender), this label reinforces their feeling of being an “outsider,” alienating them… The resulting loss of status weakens the desire to conform to social norms, and thus leads to further deviance… As the label reinforces the identity, the negative identity, in turn, reinforces deviance. (p. 15)

Thus, labels carry burdensome weight, and it would appear that these offenders who have been labeled, also feel alienated and are less motivated to even try to prevent future offenses or reintegrate back into society. The negative identity associated with the label is reinforced after an offender has been labeled and faces obstacles to reintegration.

When I think about this in the context of schools, I recall “restorative justice” practices. Though I’m not an expert in this area, I like to think that I employ aspects of restorative practices, such as encouraging the repair of harm caused by misbehavior, mediating cooperative and reflective practices and dialogue that lead to relationship rebuilding, and reintegration as I invite students back into the school community. I need and want them to be contributing members of our school society.

The focus of any justice system should be on that system’s positive effects, such as how well the system prevents “reoffending” or “recidivism.” Research has shown that systems that focus on retribution, deterrence, control, and incapacitation are highly ineffective at reducing reoffending. In fact, not only have fear-based interventions been ineffective at reducing recidivism, research has found that they may actually contribute to the problem. However, systems that capitalize on human beings’ innate desire to reintegrate into society and culture are more successful at reducing recidivism.

Knowing what we know about criminal justice systems, if we don’t work to reintegrate students after they’ve served consequences/done their time/whatever you want to call it, aren’t we just exacerbating the problem? If students remain stigmatized and see no point in reintegrating into the school society/culture, aren’t we perpetuating a system that does more harm than good?

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School Safety: In Active Shooter Situations, What Do We As Educators Have The Most Control Over?

I’m sure you’ve seen/heard the vociferous debate raging throughout the nation regarding school safety. One side seems to embrace a focus on enhanced gun control and regulations while the other seems to emphasize a focus on better mental health care. The debate is quite controversial, contentious, in depth, and currently divided.

Over the weekend, I was dialoguing with a friend concerning the horrific events in Florida. While listening, I couldn’t help but think, “Sure, this side/that side makes sense. Both sides have valid opinions. Yet, how quickly can any of these types of changes truly be actualized?” During the conversation, I found myself focusing on a bigger, (and in my opinion) more important question… In active shooter situations, what do we as educators have the most control over?

The field of education has been notoriously slow in accepting and implementing new change initiatives (example – the U.S. Department of Labor has decried the current and future shortage of trained STEM workers entering the field. Yet, the field of education hasn’t been successful in addressing this issue because of rampant budget cuts and an accountability movement that forces narrowing of the curriculum). I’m not saying we can’t be the change agents this country needs. Students are gathering and organizing all over the country. But, I just read today that, much to their dismay, students in the Florida capital witnessed legislators vote down gun control legislation while simultaneously choosing to highlight the negative health effects of pornography. These kinds of legislative changes, whether they focus on gun control or mental health support, require extensive amounts of time and excessive levels of consensus and support that may take too long. Because this is an emergency and lives are literally at risk, I think we must focus on what we can do NOW as schools/principals/teachers/students/community members/etc.

Thus, through my research, I’ve found the ALICE Training Institute, which focuses on “options-based” responses for individuals facing violent situations like an active shooter crisis in a school. Traditionally, local law enforcement agencies have advised that schools utilize “lockdown” procedures that instruct teachers and students to do a number of things in an active shooter “lockdown,” such as move to the corner of the classroom, lock the door, huddle in a classroom closet or bathroom, stay away from the windows, STAY PUT, etc. In contrast, the ALICE Institute focuses on empowering individuals to participate in their own survival in the critical time between the start of a violent event and the arrival of law enforcement. I found that many districts are moving in this direction. I know of school districts in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan making these kinds of changes to their school safety policies. In fact, according to ALICE, if a school district still employs a “Lockdown” response to active shooter situations, the district is at odds with the U.S. Department of Education.

Again, I’m not advocating one side over the other (gun control vs. mental health). I’m saying that we in the field of education should focus on the things over which we have the most control. I want to focus on all that we can do NOW, as opposed to waiting for legislators to make a decision. We should look at adjusting current school safety policies in order to maximize safety and survival for all. Based on my current understanding (which is admittedly limited), an options-based approach that empowers individuals to participate in their own survival sounds more logical and potentially beneficial (in addition to being more in line with what the U.S. Department of Education wants) as opposed to a “lockdown” approach.

What do you think? Share your thoughts with me!

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Reflecting on the School Year So Far: My Idea Log

I’ve been writing songs since I was approximately 8 or 9 years old. At that time, I would carry a notebook with me in my guitar case or in my pocket, and if I felt inspired, I would write lyrics or compositional notes (chord progressions/charts/etc.) inside that notebook. I brought that notebook with me to school, to band practice, to basketball games, to family parties… In short, I brought it with me everywhere!

When I got into high school, I got my first cell phone. Instead of using the notebook, I began texting myself lyrics. I would pull up a blank text message, input my own cell phone number, type any lyrics I was drafting at the time, and hit send. This served as an ongoing record or database of lyrics for me. When phones become more advanced, I started using note-taking applications to document lyrics and I would use the phone’s audio/visual technology to record the actual music while I played my guitar or hummed/whistled the melody. As a doctoral student endeavoring through my dissertation, I continued to use cell phone applications such as the Google Drive/Docs and Evernote to document or audio record ideas for exploration or inclusion in my drafts.

Now, in my profession as an educator, I’ve regressed back to using the traditional notebook. I’ve done so for a few reasons. Writing notes using pen and paper (the research I’ve read deals with students using pen and paper to take notes vs. using a computer to take notes during classroom instruction) allows the note taker to retain information better. In addition, I use a highlighter to highlight notes (or aspects of certain notes) that I’ve implemented/accomplished, which allows me to better visualize progress I’ve made over a certain period of time. I call this notebook my “Idea Log.”

Over break, I always take some time to peruse my Idea Log and reflect on the highlighted portions. These highlighted portions help me visualize the things I’ve tried/changed/implemented/achieved/etc. The following is a brief list of ideas I’ve tried or implemented this school year so far (quoted verbatim from my Idea Log):

  • “Utilize a Contact Journal to keep note of who I’ve spoken with and which classrooms I’ve seen. Take notes in the journal and follow through when someone needs support with something.
  • “Make positive phone calls home to the parents of my teachers. Try starting or ending the week with this strategy.”
  • “Create a ‘What Are You Learning Today? A Visit from Dr. E.’ shared document. Share the Google Form/Office 365 One Note with staff members so they can edit the document in real time and share the wonderful things happening in their classrooms that they would like me to see/observe.”
  • “Use Animoto to make monthly videos of the happenings in the school and share through social media channels.”
  • “Find an interesting and timely ‘Article of the Week’ and share through email. Encourage staff to share their own and continue through our journey of professional learning.”

Looking through the Idea Log, I am also reminded of a few other ideas I’d like to try this coming semester.

How do you record your ideas? What have you done or accomplished this year and how do you keep track of your progress?

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