How Empathy Comes to Life on Empatico

By Jamie Antoun, Bukola Amao-Taiwo, and Todd Hall| October 23, 2019
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As we explored in part one of this two-part series, empathy is our ability to feel another person’s feelings and understand their perspective. It entails feeling with the person and understanding the situation from their point of view, which ultimately strengthens the connection between two individuals. Empatico aims to spark empathy between students around the world through virtual exchange and activities that support meaningful connections. But what does empathy look like both in the classroom and through Empatico? 

Cultivating the space to practice in your classroom

To visualize empathy in action, we’ll explore two stories from real teachers who use Empatico. For the first story, let’s visit York, Pennsylvania and enter the classroom of Jamie Antoun. Try to put yourself in Jamie’s shoes when you hear her story below: 

“I noticed a student was having a rough day and started arguing with another student in the middle of math class. ‘He’s always talking smack about me!’ the student blurted. I looked at the clock. Fifteen minutes until recess. I calmly said, ‘Right now we are talking about math,’ and asked them to stay inside during recess to discuss. At recess, we sat down in a circle and I allowed each student to share what was bothering them. If either boy tried to interrupt, I politely reminded them they would get a chance to be heard.”

Empathy resolved the conflict and built relationships

By engaging in a talking circle, Jamie created an environment where students could engage each other as equals. She reinforced that each of them would have a turn to share and invited them to share their feelings, affirming that their emotions deserve to be heard and creating an opportunity for perspective taking. Let’s continue the story to see how this approach works out.  

“It turns out one student had said something about the other student’s family situation which cut very deeply. The hurt and resentment had built up inside and finally bubbled over in class. I asked them to consider how it would feel to be in the other person’s shoes. By the end, all three of us were in tears because both students were sharing very emotional and honest experiences and feelings. It took a lot of courage and trust to share. In that moment, you could see that they truly empathized with each other. I offered them both a hug, and told them how much I care about them. They shook hands. To lighten the mood, we ate some iced animal crackers. I knew they could use a few minutes to run off the negative energy and I let them go to the gym to run a couple of laps while I picked up the class from recess. As they were running side by side and laughing, I realized how important it is to make time for developing social emotional learning.

If you notice someone is having a rough day, think about what may be causing this behavior. Maybe he slept poorly because he has to sleep on a couch or she was watching her baby sister while her mom worked. You may not be able to change their living circumstances, but you can alter how you respond.”

Jamie and her students engaged empathically by not only taking time to understand each other’s perspectives, but also by tapping into their own feelings to relate to one another. The student who made the hurtful comment did not retract their hurtful comment out of pity for the student’s circumstances. They did not act from a position of looking down on their classmate. They allowed themselves to be vulnerable and feel with their classmate to truly reconcile.  

As seen in Jamie’s story, empathy plays a powerful role in the classroom. Students can learn to overcome differences by using empathy to relate to and understand others. They can practice the skills they will need for healthy interpersonal relationships in the future. 

Empatico helps educators build empathic relationships across classrooms

Now that we’ve seen empathy in the classroom, let’s explore how it unfolds between two partner classes connecting across continents. We turn to Bukola Amao Taiwo, a teacher in Ikotun, Lagos, Nigeria, who has used Empatico several times to connect with a class taught by Lynn Mitchel in the U.S. state of Florida. 

Bukola firmly believes that all people share many similarities, and that recognizing these similarities can close the gap between people of different backgrounds and cultures. This is why she joined Empatico, and she recently shared with us one exchange that helped students connect with and gain a deeper understanding of one another. As you’ll see, students’ predictions or preconceptions about their partners aren’t always accurate; however, when handled with kindness, these can lead to “aha” moments that further spark curiosity. 

“Last time [we connected with our partners in Florida], we sent slides and told a story about landmarks and our cities. We told them stories about climbing the Olumo Rock mountain–there are stairs and elevators at the site of the landmark for visitors who prefer not to climb, and they were amazed that we had elevators here. The kids asked if they could use the elevator when they come to Nigeria. We started thinking about possibilities – not just let’s go to Florida or Nigeria, but actually bridge the gap and thinking that Florida is in the next building.”

Meaningful connections were born out of these conversations. Establishing a relationship with Lynn’s class allowed Bukola’s students to see each other as equals, friends, and even neighbors. Indeed, each time her class has an exchange with their partner class, they talk about visiting each other. Moreover, finding similarities allowed students to revise their assumptions in light of new information and think critically about what they can share with kids from all over the world. Their continued relationship and rapport braced them for even challenging conversations, as Bukola explains. 

“One time, we were having an exchange, and we talked about the problems that we had in our own community, and our partner teacher shared about problems they had. She shared stories about the shootings in the US, and I shared about a boy who didn’t like school at first. Eventually, he came to school, participated in a sports festival and even won medals for his group. But some weeks later, we received a message saying that he couldn’t come back to school because he had to go back to the village he came from. We shared a moment of silence. Both of us had a connection where somebody had a bright future, but someone didn’t care about that. We talked about how we can be a part of the solution, and there was a moment of silence when we realized that every community has problems, and the only thing we can do is to be a part of the solution.” 

Empathy allowed each class to bridge their different contexts

The anecdote above exemplifies how young students can empathize with each other, despite their different experiences and backgrounds. While it may not be possible (or appropriate for your students) to discuss these more intense topics during exchanges, the biggest takeaway from Bukola’s story is that her students and their partners built a rapport and managed to relate with one another on a shared emotional level, across different topics and experiences. 

Both classes were vulnerable enough with each other to share challenging issues for their contexts and listen to the problems facing each of their communities. Neither tried to compare tragedies or jump to quick-fix solutions. Instead they tried to identify with each other by finding a shared connection in the feeling of loss. They gave validity to each other’s emotions by sharing a moment of silence, and then were able to think more proactively about how they can change things for the better. 

Four guiding takeaways for practicing empathy 

Drawing on the stories above and this explanation of empathy by Brené Brown, we suggest four takeaways for practicing empathy. 

  • First, empathy requires seeing a person as an equal–meeting them eye-to-eye rather than looking up or down at them. 
  • Second, empathy requires affirming people’s feelings as valid. If a person experiences a difficulty, empathy does not begin by jumping to a quick-fix solution or offering some version of “at least it isn’t worse.”  
  • Third, empathy requires taking time to understand another person’s perspective. 
  • Fourth, empathy requires identifying with another person’s emotion by digging into your own experiences and trying to relate to a similar feeling.

We hope that you can remember these stories and takeaways as you seek to practice empathy in your lives and classrooms!