Empathy: The Essential Ingredient for Growth

If we want [teachers] to meet the needs of all students, we need to model with them how that is possible, by meeting the needs of all teachers.
Jane Kise – Differentiated Coaching: A framework for helping teachers change (2006)

At a recent meeting, my school district’s curriculum director stated that, “optional teacher professional development is the reason for the student achievement gap”. This statement could be unpacked in many ways, but it highlights the critical role professional development plays in addressing the number one educational crisis of our time.

The curriculum director felt that voluntary professional development was inadequate, inefficient, and diminished the district’s capacity to effect transformational system change. Others felt that the district’s compulsory professional development had resulted in high absenteeism and unengaged passivity. Everyone at the table recognized that years of voluntary and compulsory district professional development had not produced the desired system change. This was a passionate and important discussion, and has a direct relationship to the next element of evocative coaching, empathy.

If professional development is going to truly change the work of teachers and the achievement of students, it must be empathetic.  Simply stated, empathy is our respectful, no-fault understanding and appreciation of someone else’s story.  An essential ingredient in the story – listening process, empathy is “a lubricant for change and a glue that holds people together”.

How Does Empathy Facilitate Change?
When teachers feel that their stories are appreciated and accepted, they are ready and willing to take the risk to move forward and grow. Principals, coaches and peers can foster an empathetic culture by resisting the urge to judge, analyze, compare or suggest.

Wow, that’s going to be difficult. Isn’t that what teachers do? Analyze, Judge, and Suggest.

Rather than jump in to fix the “problem”, we need to listen and connect with what is beneath the surface, the “stirrings of what might become” and help each other move forward.

How does your empathy help others grow?

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