Creating a Culture of Empathy

In these emotionally turbulent times, when it seems that students are constantly faced with social media pressures, personal anxieties, and the tumultuous world around them, the issues of tolerance, empathy, justice, and social-​emotional learning have taken on added significance. To further explore these issues, we convened a roundtable in January with three education leaders, including Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, AL; Neil Gupta, director of secondary education for the Worthington City School District in Columbus, OH; and Scott Wolf, principal at North High School in Denver. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: The topics of tolerance and social-emotional learning appear to be top of mind for secondary schools. Is this something new, and if so, what’s changed in the last five to 10 years to produce this result?

Costello: I should warn you in advance that lots of people do not like the word “tolerance.” They find it’s just not a high-enough bar. But certainly, the idea that we need to learn how to bridge differences, and we need to learn how to get along, has become more important in the last few years for a number of reasons. One, of course, is that we have just gone through a historic period of immigration. Students are encountering differences in places where they hadn’t before, what our neighbors to the north in Canada call “visible minorities.” The need to figure out how to bridge those differences and really talk across cultures and with people who don’t share identities has been growing for the last 15 years.

What we also know is that we’ve become very politically polarized in the last few years. The election of 2016—the campaign—showed that, and the two years since then have not made it any better. That polarization has seeped into schools because kids are social creatures, and they are not immune. That’s another reason we need programs to help young people know how to listen to each other.

Gupta: We have always taught character education lessons and held expectations for students. In Worthington, we created a focus strategy in “creating a culture of empathy and support” to promote social-emotional learning concepts, which includes tolerance. We’ve made empathy one of our district-focused strategies, because we’re seeing extreme changes in our student populations regarding political, economic, cultural, [and] religious aspects.

When we look at even how our staff treats, thinks about, and works with our students and how students work with each other—the idea about them really trying to understand where everybody comes from—that isn’t the same as what their background and experiences might be. We’ve seen an impact of behavior in our district in particular. As we continue to grow in the number of students in our district, we are also seeing a growing diversity from those different aspects that I talked about, and that has caused us to have overt conversations and professional learning that helps to build social-​emotional skills and backgrounds.

Wolf: We also use “empathy” here at North High School. We talk about, “How do we build empathy for self and others?” I think that this has become more pronounced as our society has started to speed up with all the digital and technology changes, where when I started here at North six years ago, you could go into the cafeteria and students would be engaging in conversation with one another, looking at each other eye to eye. Now, you go into the cafeteria and there’s usually the device that’s in between a conversation, oftentimes two devices, because each person talking to each other has a device that is in front of them. As a result of that, I think we have a lot of individuals in society who don’t have skills that we take for granted as adults involving relationships, communication, and mutual understanding.

Instead, our students, specifically at North, have a self-perception that is driven by what they see on social media that is not necessarily grounded in who that person really is. They have a superficial understanding of who they are as individuals, which then causes them to have a superficial understanding of who other people are, which then does not allow them to interact in ways where they’re actually connecting. So, you do get these drastic divisions that are very polarizing because our young people don’t really know how to navigate that, which means that tolerance and social-emotional learning is that much more important.

And I would argue that in education, we have been stuck in this place where we continue to put content first. The reality in our society is that we can pretty much access content using those same devices that are causing these divides, but we need the discernment, we need the understanding of ourselves to be able to navigate what is real, what is not; that is perpetuated by the election cycle and what’s real news, what’s fake news. So, how can we build the skills in our students to really know themselves, have confidence in themselves, and to have that appreciation, that empathy for others? Frankly, we don’t spend the time that we need doing that in school, and we haven’t for years. I think now it’s really showing.

New Initiatives

Levin-Epstein: Tell us about programs in this area being developed for students and staff.

Costello: First of all, that empathy is a core requirement. It’s what makes us human, and it’s so important in social relationships. In Teaching Tolerance, everything that drives us is embodied in our social justice standards. Those rest on four pillars. Identity and diversity—that’s where empathy comes in. I think, Scott, you described [empathy] well as “in ourselves and in others.” The second two pillars are justice and action. We think that it’s not enough to simply have empathy—we want students who are committed to justice. After all, the Pledge [of Allegiance] says “and justice for all.” We hope that they really understand what that means and that as citizens they are prepared to work together to make the world a better place.

In terms of programs, I have two pieces of advice. Teaching Tolerance provides professional development for teachers based on the social justice standards but also on having critical conversations. Neil talked about the different experiences that students are now coming into school with because of the sheer diversity of populations. A key to understanding those experiences is to learn how to listen and kind of de-center your own experience.

Most of us know, of course, that the teaching population is primarily white women. In high school, you begin to get more men, but the fact is that many teachers come from a very specific perspective. So, a lot of our training is around trying to remember to look at everything with a different lens and to recognize that there are going to be multiple experiences in one classroom and that teachers have to de-center their own experience.

As far as students are concerned, it’s important—especially at the high school level—not to have an added-on program. High school students tend to catch on pretty quickly that this is not something that’s going to count. It’s much more important to embed it into curriculum, so that students are exposed to a variety of experiences. They should be problem-solving, they should be doing group work where they have to collaborate to produce a project or an outcome. [Working that into] how we teach and exposure to lot of different voices is what’s needed.

Gupta: In our first year implementing the focus strategy on empathy, we invested time trying to understand what best meets the needs of our staff and students regarding professional learning. We knew we needed to create strategies and actions that were going to support dialogue and a focus regarding social-emotional learning, but not necessarily did we know how that was going to look. The first year, we conducted a lot of research on supports around empathy and social-​emotional learning.

I’ll start with the students. I agree with Maureen’s point in looking for differentiated curriculum between grade levels. To her point, with our coaching and professional learning, a focus is on attaching SEL to our work on depth of knowledge by applying lessons and book choices—things that would promote learning with reflection. The book choices that we are having students read, are they all coming from one angle or one point of view versus having differing thoughts? Sometimes teachers are afraid to allow that type of dialogue to happen in the classroom. So, we are working with the staff on how to foster dialogue in conversation that might be politically charged (or have some type of religious or cultural differences) in a way that can be beneficial with different ideas being brought together.

Similarly, we are investigating ways to embed this work in lesson redesign by moving from learning about material to the application of “I really get to understand what it’s like” and putting kids through that situation, through either group work or connecting with the community, so that students are able to look outside their own walls of the classroom. At the middle school level and at the elementary level, we’ve been piloting Responsive Classroom [an evidence-based approach to education that focuses on the strong relationship between academic success and social-emotional learning].

To Maureen’s point, we’re seeing the need to shift away from teaching the curriculum within a certain block of the schedule to embedding it throughout the day in all classrooms and activities as part of the school culture. It can’t be a “check the box,” where we teach SEL early in the morning and never talk about it again throughout the rest of the day.

From a staff professional learning standpoint, teaching SEL concepts and pedagogy started out in some of our schools with outside experts through modeling and reflection. Harvard University has created online surveys measuring implicit bias; this has been beneficial for staff to identify their own implicit biases. In addition, we’re fortunate enough to be near The Ohio State University, which showcases the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity; they were also able to provide information and some resources to our staff on implicit bias. We are currently reviewing their online modules in order to provide them to staff for continued learning.

Another accelerator in better understanding the needs of our students has been partnering with a local organization to facilitate a four-hour poverty simulation for our staff. I’ve been a part of simulations before and never really felt that I was impacted playing a role. You play pretend, and you never really feel like it means anything to you, but I walked away from this simulation very angry—I still remember feeling “profiled” as a bad student without even being given a chance, and that’s helped remind me how I need to be careful of my own prejudice and the things that I might bring into certain situations.

Finally, I know it’s not directly related to professional learning in a sense, but a game-changer for us has been a survey we are using to collect feedback on social-emotional learning from our students. This past year, we switched over to a new vendor, Panorama Education, and its Panorama Student Survey. I wouldn’t say it is a magical survey by itself, it’s just that we’ve done something more with that as a district than we’ve done with other surveys in the past by actually looking at the results after they come back and having conversations about what to do with the data for improvement. It started out very purposefully about looking at the data from a district level, then looking at it with our building leadership teams, and now we’re starting to have students involved and looking at the data. There’s professional learning that’s coming out of this tool as we look for ways to support SEL focus areas.

Wolf: Here at North, in terms of programming, we are a restorative practice school. We have been a restorative practice school, but we’re really doubling down on what does that look like for us—to not just have restorative practice programming but a true restorative practice culture within everything that we do here to build skills in our students and not just consequences right away. So, that’s the main programming that we run here, and what that looks like is in the naming of things, where our students don’t have “detention,” our students have “reflection,” and our students aren’t just sitting against a wall, but they are doing active reflection on the skills that they need to work on.

We use an online social-emotional program called BASE Education for those reflective moments. We use BASE Education as a whole school for some lessons, but it’s also targeted specifically to student skill that’s needed, and it’s all online and self-paced, which is really nice for our students. So, they just get that assigned to them to try to help build some of this awareness. When they do harm someone else with their words [or something they posted online or their physical actions], they are then building skills so that does not happen in the future.

In addition, I loved what was shared about “how do you embed this into the curriculum?” and one thing we’re trying to do here is really spend time with an organization called Portrait of a Graduate, which maps out what those key competencies are that we actually want to see from our graduates by the time that they’re done with us. Then, what are the experiences that we need to provide to our students that are ongoing that they are having a strategic, focused, collaborative group experience about in 10th grade? We’re calling that out deliberately and are not making an assumption that our teachers are just doing what they’re doing and the kids are having the experiences that they need, but to be really intentional in those.

And, finally, starting this year, we are having all our ninth graders take a self-assessment through an organization called Indigo Education. The self-​assessment is like a DISC profile and says what their strengths are, what their work types are, who they work well with, who they struggle with, and then we have lessons the students are going through. We’ve never done this before, but the cool thing is that students take this, and they’re like, “How did this report know so much about me?” It’s because you gave them the answers, and it’s giving them language to talk about themselves with others that they didn’t have before. Our hope is that at the end of 11th grade, they’ll take this assessment again to be able to show where they have developed.

There’s a whole empathy component to the assessment as well. We’re hopeful about it. I don’t have any result to share yet, but we’re trying to do some things schoolwide and set some expectations, which is challenging too in the context of a high school in Denver Public Schools, where our accountability framework is really focused on test scores. Academic achievement is important, but right now, there’s so much focus on that in terms of what our status is in the district and ultimately the state, and there’s not enough focus on “How are we held accountable to making sure that our students are building skills around tolerance and their social-emotional learning?”

Levin-Epstein: Can you provide a specific example in this area in which a program you described was specifically integrated or embedded into a curriculum or classroom, how it was actually implemented by a teacher in the classroom?

Costello: This is a little bit indirect, but I talked about the need to embed in curriculum. We just launched a new project called Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. We argue that American schools don’t do a very good job teaching about the full range of American slavery. I’m a history teacher by background; I taught high school social studies for 20 years, and I know that textbooks leave too much out. We tend to teach it, first of all, as the cause of the Civil War, and secondly as a kind of isolated chapter in our national story. It’s a very painful subject to teach. African-American students often feel shame about it; white students feel guilt. What we’ve proposed is a way of teaching about slavery that acknowledges the resilience in enslaved people and the degree to which the rest of the country was complicit. Basically, you take a much deeper dive. We call it Teaching Hard History because it’s uncomfortable, and it’s uncomfortable because a lot of the racial issues that are raised by looking at American slavery are still around in our nation today.

What we have discovered working with teachers is that they need more than content. They need practice talking about race, talking about their own experiences with race, talking about how their racial identity positions themselves in this society, and how other people’s responses and experiences may be different. After a recent training—this was in Alexandria, VA—a teacher went back to class and rolled out a whole set of lessons the next week and engaged her class in identifying some of the myths they’d learned and what they didn’t know. She sent us her students’ short videos. What was really fascinating was that they were looking at different perspectives, and they were finding power in the fact that they were hearing stories that differed from the narrative they had been told before.

Secondary school offers a great opportunity to do some “unteaching” of these historical narratives and to recognize that injustice happens, but that people have always struggled against it. When we engage students with these problems that are so real, and in some ways so familiar, we’re not just inviting their voices but affirming truths. In these videos, students were saying, “I thought this was true, but it turns out this is true.”

Gupta: One example here in Worthington City Schools is our partnership with the Columbus Council on World Affairs. Some major cities have a Council on World Affairs organization or a similar group. My perception is they mostly are a body to network businesses in different ventures. Ours has a belief to also reach out and work with high school students. Worthington City Schools partnered on a student opportunity to provide high school courses that occur over three years. They go through a process that’s based on the Asia Society’s four domains of global competence: Investigate the World, Recognize Perspectives, Communicate Ideas, Take Action.

For three years, we’ve taken field trips and learned from companies and organizations in how they work within the four domains mentioned above. Throughout these trips, we join other school districts, so the experience of our students talking with other students also provides for insights in different cultures and beliefs.

Our students recently took a trip to the Honda plant to better understand how [their staff] communicates with people from all around the country, 24 hours a day and in different time zones. We also learned how Honda supports employees coming from other countries to live and work in America to help integrate them to our country as well as be sensitive to the customs and traditions of their homeland. Our students not only have conversations about that, but also about how they look at different cultures and how they work with people with different thoughts and beliefs.

Then, the culminating project that they have their junior year is a “Take Action” project. And, just like Maureen said, the quality of student projects is more purposeful and real. For example, a student might be focusing on a certain population of immigrants that have refugees that have come in to the Columbus area, and she wants to reach out to them for support. They’re doing research that comes along with that that has really blown my mind about the risk-taking and the heart that they’ve had sometimes because they’ve read a book or watched a movie, and because of the impact from that conversation or interaction, they now have a passion that they want to take action. I think that’s been a large part of a change that we’re going to see some fruit from in the future.

Wolf: Those examples are so great. I think if we could all just keep at it and work together, we have hope, and that’s one thing that keeps me going for sure. I think the specific example here related to building skill in these areas is: Last year we started a restorative practice class, and the students who actually signed up to take this class were not your students who had it all figured out. In fact, they would be talking to the deans every other week because they wouldn’t always be making the best choices, but as their culminating project, they led circle training for our staff members who had not been trained in circles yet, and it was just super powerful, because for one of the first times here, you had students teaching our teachers, and our teachers were super responsive to that training. Our students felt really empowered and, ultimately, were the ones leading that culture, moving from the program to that culture place.

So, as a result of that, you had students who started to understand the theory—that this restoration works [they didn’t always practice it all the time themselves, but they were able to share their knowledge with other staff members]. Other staff members were then able to see them in another light, which is oftentimes what our students need, for adults and other students to see sides of them that they don’t always get to see.

Parental Involvement

Levin-Epstein: Final question: Imagine you’re a principal and a parent comes up to you and says, “I really like what you’re doing on diversity/empathy/social justice, and I’m wondering, as a parent, what can I do to help?”

Costello: Well, that’s not where I was expecting that question to go! I was expecting “I oppose it.” That’s what we’re hearing from some folks. Going back to the first question and the whole issue of empathy, all of the behaviors that we’re talking about need to be modeled. As Neil said, it’s not just checking the box; we have to be doing this all the time. We need to model from the top down, having open conversations, greeting students by name, knowing about their lives, and remembering details and asking them about it. That’s the most basic advice I would provide parents: Have conversations with your children about events in the world, because there’s plenty to talk about. Whether it’s a refugee crisis on the border or fires in California, have those conversations and talk about the way they impact people. That’s a really simple thing.

Beyond that, however, there are some really good ideas out there. I’ve heard of schools where parents have gotten together and done a social justice book club with another group of parents, or they’ve done it with students, which I really like because it’s intergenerational. Really, the issue is, try to break through your own barriers and look at your own social and residential situation; are you doing enough to break barriers in your own life and modeling that for your children?

Gupta: I agree with Maureen that we wish we had all parents who were asking those questions. It would make it a lot easier for us. I think I heard the two words that I would say from her: exposure and modeling. I would also add asking questions. Expose them to different places. Another part of my job that I love is overseeing international travel. I talked about the Asia Society, the four domains for that, and I really am a firm believer in international travel. I believe that everybody should go, at least experience another culture. I understand budget constraints on families but [try] to make it a priority to go at least once before they graduate to see another culture, how they live, and what it’s like to really understand the world’s a lot bigger than they are.

If that’s not possible, just going to different places in different communities within the United States can provide similar insights. For example, visiting a different religious setting—a church, mosque, or temple—could provide different insights. Even going to the art museum, you really start to see how different art is used and mediums are used in different ways for various cultures. A goal should be to provide exposure, even the idea about different thoughts. We tend to think things are black and white, that there are only two ways that things can be looked at, but you have to expose them to how people—in a nonjudgmental way—can look at things from different points of view and for them to at least consider [other views]. They don’t have to accept them, but just to show them.

Modeling is another key area, just being transparent. In our jobs as adults, our roles have changed drastically in how it’s impacted us in our daily [lives]; to come home and sit around the dinner table and to say, “This is how it’s different for me, and this is what I’m struggling through right now, and this is what’s changing my paradigm or changing my beliefs and helping me to understand things in a different way. Or, this is how I have to navigate and work thorough that.” I think it’s good for them to at least see that thought process, even as adults.

The third part would be: Be curious. When the student comes home, we’ve got to really stop asking the “What did you do at school today?” type question and really start to get curious about what they are learning. For example, without even reading the book assigned, a parent asking their child questions like, “What’s it teaching you? What are the beliefs of the different people? Why do they believe that?” Not just what do they believe, but “Why do you think they believe that way? Where did that belief or mindset come from?” and help be that sounding board for them to consider those other possibilities.

Wolf: Wow, as a parent I think this is such a good question: What can we do? I think sometimes we give parents a pass on this, and as a school leader, I feel a lot of pressure to work with my students who I see on a daily basis, but I also have a responsibility with all of our families. I think that our families, similar to our students, are fed lots of things in the news and social media and, unfortunately, the way that things are set up now, it’s very blinding to other perspectives. The things that I click on are the things that are fed to me, so I quickly go down a track where I think everybody else believes the thing that I believe, and it’s very hard for me to pick my head up and just turn to a TV station that I don’t usually tune to because I can just pick whatever I want whenever I want to pick it. I think our adults who are supporting our students struggle, so my advice to a parent would be to really be critical of the experiences your students are having.

When you’re signing up for a dance class, are you signing up for the neighborhood dance class, where all the kids are going to look exactly the same, or are you being intentional and saying, “No, I need to drive five miles across town so that my kid is in dance class, but they’re in dance class with students who have different life experiences with them.” And when we’re going on trips, like here in Denver, are we just driving up to the mountains to hang out in ski condos with other, similar-type people, or are we saying, “No. We’re going to do a staycation, and we’re actually going to go spend time in different parts of the city that we haven’t always spent time in.”

As a parent, my encouragement would be: How are you intentionally providing experiences for students so that they can see more holistically what this world is and not just the world that is being “said” to them?