Monthly Archives: March 2013

Flourishing: the ability to demonstrate empathy for others

Source: Beth Chatto Gardens by antonychammond via Flickr

Source: Beth Chatto Gardens by antonychammond via Flickr

(Sixth in a series that delves deeper into the characteristics of a flourishing student – click here to read the original post on flourishing.)

It has been exciting to see how the concept of empathy has been getting more attention in recent years. I see it as a critical aspect of a flourishing student. After all, the world has seen many brilliant and powerful people, who seem to lack the capacity for basic empathy, make a mess out of our world. Empathy is a deeper emotional experience than sympathy: it is literally the ability “to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.” (Source: diffen.com) We might agree that the best helpers to us in difficult situations are those who are “wounded healers” – people who have experienced similar pain and also healing so that they are able to help us. In Hebrews 4:15 we are told this: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.” (NIV) If we wish to teach our students to be Christlike and to truly love and be compassionate toward their neighbor, we must attend to the development of their ability to empathize with others.

Surely, to live as Christ asks us to live in harmony with our neighbor demands that we teach our students how to demonstrate empathy. But it turns out that empathy, even from a non-Christian aspect, is being recognized as a critical skill. A recent Forbes article from last week asks if empathy in business is an indulgence or invaluable. The evidence suggests it is invaluable and gives examples of Fortune 500 companies trying to increase this capacity in their employees. If we turn to the arena of education we are increasingly aware of the success of Finnish schools who are based on the premise of cooperation and equity, rather than the American model of competition: “Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.” (Atlantic, December 2012)  It should not be lost on us that Finland leads the world in helping its citizens to live flourishing lives – it could be argued that Finland demonstrates a higher level of empathy toward its students, seeing that helping all of them to succeed and thrive is the ultimate goal. In his book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman points out how developing the skill of attunement is critical for success in life and relationships. His research shows that interpersonally sensitive teachers and clinicians get the higher job performance ratings. Attunement of salespeople and consultants leads to highest sales and satisfaction levels. About 80% (and increasing) of our jobs are in the service economy, so it appears that good listening and empathy skills are more important than ever.

How can we work on helping our students develop the capacity for empathy? Our ability to empathize is a capacity that, according to scientists, is developed in childhood.  They suggest three categories of attachment – secure, which comprises about 55% of the population, anxious – 20% of the population who are overcome by their own anxiety, and 25% who are avoidant – they lack empathy or are not prone to help others. While there is some reported success with training people to attend to facial micro-expressions (emotional signals that flit across the face in less than 1/3 of a second!) we would all likely agree that empathy should be more a matter of the heart than simply a cognitive skill. Goleman, like Jesus and many before him, recommends that we all become less self focused: He states: “The more sharply attentive we are, the more keenly we will sense another’s inner state…conversely the greater our distress, the less accurately we will be able to empathize. In short, self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands…we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.” (p. 54, Working with Emotional Intelligence)

Empathy in Christian education starts with the Biblical concept that all humans have been created in the image of God and therefore have inherent worth. Empathy is needed due to the fact of sin and brokenness being a part of our world. We hurt and wound each other and are called to help heal these wounds that we see others experience. We do this out of gratitude for having experienced the ultimate empathy of Jesus Christ and we seek to follow his example, walking in the shoes of others, and seeking to love them well. We are wired to experience joy in serving and helping others – there is evidence that that can be seen in children as young as one year old. (see the NY Times article linked here for more  and also see the comments section for additional helpful information) We need to help our students practice doing good and being responsive to Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves. We need to help them understand how brokenness has impacted our world, and that they are called as Christ followers to be part of the healing process.

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Filed under classroom, curriculum, discernment, encouraging the heart, mission measurement, student outcomes

What Do I Teach That A YouTube Video Can’t?

(Thanks to my friend Bryant Russ, Bible teacher at Lansing (MI) Christian School, for sharing this blog post.)

What do I teach that a YouTube video can’t?

YouTubeThis question has been on my mind since last week when I learned more about the universe in three days of watching educational Internet videos than I had in four years of high school science classes.  No joke.  I made a list of all the things I wanted to know about science—everything from what is a molecule? to Is time really relative?—and hit the web.  Sites such as Coursera.com, TedEd, ITunes U, and Minute Physics on YouTube provided engaging, comprehensive, and understandable lessons that led me through each one of my questions and offered new ones to continue my online education.  Oh yeah, and did I mention that all this was free?

So back to the question: What do I teach that a YouTube video can’t?  This question is important to me because I’d like to know that I couldn’t be replaced by a computer.  Unfortunately, after close inspection I’ve found that much of what I’m doing, and much of what most teachers are doing, can be done—and often better—by the Internet.  If this is the case, why shouldn’t I be replaced by a screen?

Twenty years ago it was the job of a teacher to relay information to the students.  Teach them charts, methods, dates, important people and events.  But has the role of a teacher changed now that students could pass just about every quiz and test we give them if allowed to use their phones?  Has the Internet altered the game?  If the world has changed, and significantly, since this educational structure was conceived, shouldn’t we start considering what we teach that a Youtube video can’t before we’re all swapped out for iPads?

I’m not suggesting teachers abandon relaying information and giving instruction, but perhaps it’s time to shift the focus of education.  Let me propose two things a teacher can do—and must do—to become irreplaceable.

1.  Teachers can inspire interest, ignite curiosity, and kindle a love of learning in students. I would go so far as to suggest this is the primary role of a twenty-first century teacher.  If your students read what they’re supposed to read, answer what they’re supposed to answer, and memorize what they’re supposed to memorize, but do not continue to learn your subject when the year is over then you have failed them—regardless of their report card grades.  Your job is to get them interested.  Why?  Think about it.  If they have an interest in your subject, whether you’re teaching literature or biology, they will continue to learn about it outside the classroom (i.e. more learning will happen) and at a significantly higher level of engagement (i.e. better learning will happen).  You might not be as necessary for the relaying of information as were teachers twenty years ago, but you are just as important for sparking interest in the students so that they will seek multiple available resources for attaining the information.  How can you do this?

  • Demonstrate interest, curiosity, and a love of learning.  If you’re not interested, curious, or in love with learning, please stop teaching.  As a wise mentor teacher once told me, “You teach who you are more than you teach your subject.”
  • Ask big, important questions.  So often I find myself giving answers to questions that students couldn’t care less about.  If they don’t care about the question, why would they care about the answer?  We must be giving students questions—and big ones!  Let your natural curiosity (see bullet 1) help guide what you do in class to the point that your students feel invited into a search for the answers to their important questions.
  • Avoid using grades as motivation or a threat (“If you do this you’ll get an ‘A’” and “If you don’t do this your grade will suffer”).  This is like putting the wrong kind of gas into a car.  I get so annoyed when a student asks, “Is this going to be on the test?” or “Do I have to know this?” or “How many points is this worth?” and yet, I have to admit it’s our fault.  We create these grade-obsessed creatures and almost always destroy natural interest in a subject when we use assessment for something it was never intended to be.  (I can say with confidence that I am more eager and excited to learn than I have ever been in my life.  I told my wife this; she said, “Too bad this didn’t happen about 15 years ago.”  I replied, “15 years ago I was much too busy with school to be excited about learning.”)

2.  Teachers can initiate and facilitate creativity in students.  Put simply, our students shouldn’t just be learning stuff; they should be making stuff.  I have never been more proud as a teacher than when my students make something (or make something happen) that they are excited about and invested in.  In fact, I recently challenged my students with a project that demanded interest, investment, and hard work…then I let them go.  To my surprise, not only did just about every single student get a ‘A’, but they worked so much harder (and learned so much more) than if they had simply been asked to regurgitate what they had memorized on a test.  Our students are itching to do something; to make something.  Unfortunately, it’s much easier to give a test than to offer and assist an opportunity to be creative.  The irony is that when given the opportunity to do something significant it is often the unengaged, ADD kid who surprises you with something great.  So many of our students are itching to just do something!  Not only does this promote a higher level of learning (what is the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy again?) but it allows young men and women to have a purpose for coming to school.  The creative person is the most valuable asset in today’s changing world, so shouldn’t we be focused on making creators?

While I am completely aware of the challenges of actually being this kind of teacher in a classroom filled with 25 rambunctious teenagers, I am totally committed to moving in this direction in order to distinguish myself from a machine that could otherwise do my job.

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Filed under change, classroom, curriculum, discernment, leadership, resources, staff development, student outcomes

Are you a leader with PEP?

As I have thought recently about effective leadership at the principal, superintendent, and head of school level in Christian schools, it occurs to me that there are at least three areas that are critical to do the job effectively. I have identified these areas with the acronym PEP – Priorities, Entrepreneurialism, and People Centeredness.

Priorities:

The leader of a school plays a critical role as spiritual leader.  I believe that, like a teacher modeling for students, the modeling of the leader is critical for the entire school staff. The leader encourages or discourages spiritual growth and calls the followers to goodness or inadvertently gives permission for poor behavior because of the leader’s poor example. Great leaders must demonstrate consistently implemented values and a transparent worldview. They must determine, and commit to, what is most important for the school – communicating this clearly and often. They help others set priorities that promote and enhance the mission and vision of the school. They are the chief mission and vision carriers, the key person who reminds others what the school stands for, how it is distinctive and true to its mission, and where it hopes to head in the future. They must be “passioneers” with integrity – if they are not the lead cheerleader, who will take on that role? Strong leaders seek to embed the mission and vision of the school in people, policy, processes, and practice.

screen 22Entrepreneurialism:

The leader of the school demonstrates an attitude of continuous learning and improvement, open to and seeking out new ideas. Leaders relish feedback about the school for improvement and search out new opportunities for the school to impact their students, the school community, and the world. They are willing to take risks, encouraging and supporting innovation in teaching and learning. They are purposeful in helping others to embrace a larger vision and commit to a multi-year plan of improvement. They seek excellence by benchmarking results and utilizing research based best practices. They model being the chief learner and work to establish a culture of learning.  They are uneasy with the status quo and have a passion for true worship/service, desiring to offer their very best as praise to God.

People centeredness:

The focus of the leader should be to genuinely love all the people he/she serves. Leaders must truly seek the best for each person – demonstrating this by seeking to put in place processes and policies that help to develop the capacity of each person.  They must see the image of Christ in each person and seek to understand their gifts and potential contribution to the school. Leaders need to put in place professional development processes and leadership structures that encourage and challenge staff members to develop their gifts and to grow as a learning leader. Leaders must be careful to balance grace and truth in their interactions, processes, and accountability structures.

Leadership is not easy – it requires all kinds of “above and beyond” efforts and a heart that is attuned to, and seeks, God’s leading and wisdom. Yet what is sometimes unsaid is that it can be a very rewarding experience to be able to work with, and impact in positive ways, the lives of students, teachers, staff, parents, and community. When leaders are filled with “PEP” they are a huge blessing to all in their school and community.

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Filed under Biblical worldview, change, distinctively Christian, leadership, mission development