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.

When’s the Last Time You Experienced “Flow”?

I talk a lot about the importance of engaging in professional learning opportunities outside the classroom/workplace, such as reading a professional book, joining a Twitter chat regarding your profession, engaging in a book club/book study, writing about your learning (blogging, journaling, etc.), and attending conferences. For educators, summer is the perfect time to engage in these types of activities. This summer, I read a professional book, attended a conference, and engaged in a plethora of conversations concerning the field of education.

Looking back, I definitely could have done more. Instead, I composed new music (which I haven’t done in 6 years because of the demands of my doctoral coursework), I wrote lyrics to multiple songs, I recorded and produced my own songs, I built home décor items such as a framed chalkboard and a sign, I traveled to a few places, and I enjoyed time with family and friends.

To be honest, these activities were exactly what I needed. I was experiencing “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow refers to an optimal psychological state that people experience when they feel they are guided by purpose and are fully immersed in the experience itself. During a flow experience, we are so concentrated on the activity that we often lose track of time. In addition, we lose track of other problems and stressors from our daily lives. Some benefits of flow include alleviating stress, learning more about yourself, helping you gain more control over aspects of your life, and assisting in diminishing self-consciousness.

While reading about this concept in Daniel Pink’s Drive, I couldn’t help but relate it to the way a painter, sculptor, or music composer (like myself) gets “in the zone.” For me, flow is when I unleash my creativity while composing new music or building/creating new home décor. During these experiences, I’m hyper focused on making a new beat/coming up with a new guitar riff/writing new lyrics/sketching and developing new home décor ideas/etc. These “in the zone” moments where I’m enveloped in creativity really help me detach from other issues and stay focused on creating something meaningful. It’s an amazing feeling.

Though, these weren’t necessarily “professional” learning opportunities, they were certainly “personal” learning opportunities for me.

How do you experience “flow”? What types of activities do you engage in that put you in a state of “flow”?

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