Empathy is a Skill

It seems that when it comes to race in America, everyone has something say. When student leaders at Montpelier High School made national headlines by raising a Black Lives Matter flag this year, news outlets spread the story and the opinions poured in. At the heart of the many lessons learned in our ongoing shared experience is the importance of empathy as a crucial skill that needs to be intentionally taught and developed.

BLM Flag Raising Ceremoney - Selects - 18Student leaders from the MHS Racial Justice Alliance receiving support from the local community and students from Burlington High School on February 1, 2018. Photo credit to Adam Blair.

One thing we learned when we decided to commit to creating a more culturally competent and equitable school experience, was that we also need to improve our community’s commitment to empathy. Most people agree on the importance of empathy. Being able to view the world through another person’s eyes, to be able to take on and feel multiple perspectives, and to be able to imagine what the world might actually be like as someone other than yourself requires empathy. And learning how to utilize that skill of empathy is fundamental to creating the just, humane, and caring society we all seek.  

Well known authors and researchers, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, recognized the importance of empathy when they made it one of their “Six Facets of Understanding” in their highly regarded Understanding By Design (2007). They described empathy in this way:  “Empathy requires respect for people different from ourselves. Our respect for them causes us to be open-minded, to carefully consider their views when those views are different from ours” (page 99). So how do we actually go about teaching and improving this important skill?  

At Montpelier High School, the raising of a Black Lives Matter flag has given us ample opportunity to teach and improve our empathy skills. Building a foundation upon which the visible part of our commitment (the flag) would fly required us to continually grapple with key areas of growth such as implicit bias, privilege, and structural racism within ourselves and within our school system. That work has been supported by several discussions and curriculum choices. For example, as a school community we watched 13th, a documentary that depicts the all too frequent horrors and pain of living and dying for black persons in America, from the age of slavery to current times. These types of shared experiences create chances for our community to feel empathy and, in turn, to grow our empathy skills.

13th - Student Discussions - Selects - 2Schoolwide discussion of mass incarceration, Jim Crow, and damaging stereotypes at a Montpelier High School assembly on February 8, 2018. Photo credit to Adam Blair.

While the overwhelming majority of the messages we received about the flag raising have been messages of encouragement and support, it does not take much searching on the internet to find some rather outrageous responses of hate directed toward us as well. On that spectrum of responses, one of the frequently shared opinions is “all lives matter.” In fact, if you have followed the story of the Black Lives Matter movement even casually, you have probably heard this response.

So, do all lives matter? In one regard, there is an easy answer. Yes, of course, all lives matter. As co-founder of #blacklivesmatter Alicia Garza has said, “That’s obvious, but that’s a utopia that we don’t live in.” In other words, yes, all lives should matter, but systemic racism, implicit bias, and unchecked privilege mean that we have a lot of work to do. At the core of that work is empathy.

In order for our primarily white communities to understand the urgency of the phrase Black Lives Matter, we need to work at understanding the issue beyond the fractured and incomplete story of civil rights that many of us learned in school, and make a renewed effort to feel what it might be like to be a person of color in our communities. We need to look past our own personal challenges, struggles, discomforts, and rationalizations, and do the work needed to see and feel the world through the lens of someone besides ourselves. In so doing, we improve our empathy skills, which will hopefully transfer across a wide range of privileges needing empathetic perspectives including but not limited to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, financial status, education, and citizenship.

On October 26th, 2017, Dr. Ruha Benjamin gave a keynote speech at the Rowland Annual Conference that brought down the house. One of her most important ideas was the need for empathy. As she stated, “[We must] help the overserved understand their privilege and develop empathy so they can be whole.” The wisdom found her statement reverberates through all of us in our shared humanity, and certainly through Montpelier’s intense experience with our Black Lives Matter flag. So while the raising of a Black Lives Matter flag is first and foremost about our community’s commitment to improving cultural competency, recognizing implicit biases, acknowledging privilege, and rooting out systemic racism, it is also a tremendous opportunity in learning and practicing the most vital of skills: empathy.  

Related Links:

Dr. Ruha Benjamin: Keynote Address 10-26-17

Teaching Tolerance: Toolkit for Empathy.

Understanding by Design: (Chapter 4: Six Facets of Understanding: includes empathy)

MIC’s Story of Black Lives Matter flag at Montpelier High School

Montpelier High School on CNN-facebook post (millions of views)

MPS-McRaith 1Mike McRaith is the principal of Montpelier High School. He is a 2013 Rowland Fellow with a research interest and expertise dedicated to increasing student achievement through social emotional learning. He has been fortunate to study grit, deliberate practice, and social belonging with Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania’s Character Lab. With Castleton University, he offers several online continuing educational courses to teachers around the state on social emotional learning, proficiency based learning, and personalization.



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