Empathy: A Better Practice

This is the first post of our February series on “Best and Next Practices”Kristen Swanson is a founder of the Edcamp movement, and she serves on the board of the Edcamp Foundation. She recently published a book called Professional Learning in the Digital Age which explores the roles of digital networks within professional development for teachers.

Dancer by ghbrett, on FlickrMy teaching career actually began in the back of a dance studio in East Greenville, PA. What started as an easy way to offset competition and costume costs quickly became my strongest passion. As time passed, I discovered that I loved sharing the beauty and art of classical ballet with the “under 6” crowd.

However, teaching someone else (especially someone under the age of 6) how to move their body in a specific fashion can be tough. Really tough. Although classical ballet has specific strategies and techniques for teaching movement, some of my students didn’t follow this path. Instead, I found myself constantly creating new exercises, stories or examples to help them reach the ambitious goals they had set for themselves.

In short, the “best practices” of the discipline often didn’t work in my classroom. Trying really hard to put myself in students’ shoes and imagine what they were seeing/hearing/feeling seemed to work much better.

So when I entered the teaching profession years later as an elementary school educator, I immediately disliked the term “best practice.” This wasn’t because the strategies, ideas, and research weren’t valuable; they were. My disdain occurred mostly because I didn’t think it was possible or fair to limit myself in the ways that I reached kids. In my mind, the term “best practice” seemed like a vehicle for standardizing my classroom.

And so, as I survived my first year of teaching, I made a promise to myself.

I would use best practices, but only if I was also using a better practice: EMPATHY.

As long as I considered how students would feel, think, and react to my instructional design, I was confident in using any of the “best practice” strategies. However, if my consideration for kids was absent, even the “best practice” strategies weren’t terribly effective.

Putting ourselves in the shoes of our students not only makes us better teachers, but it also makes us better people. Seeing the needs and perspectives of someone else, absent of judgement, is a critical component of any complex task or problem.

So, for now, I’ll always put the better practice first. How can you be empathetic today?

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  by  ghbrett 


  • Reply February 6, 2013

    Denise Kish

    Love how you framed this. It reminds me of the saying ‘students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ If we aren’t approaching every situation without our students and their best interests in mind, then the best design may not be enough.

  • Reply February 23, 2013

    Nina Smith

    Teaching is situational. So is learning. Any given practice can be improved with empathy and empowerment. http://notesfromnina.wordpress.com/2013/01/10/meaningful-learning/

  • [...] by permission from Kristen Swanson. This post is cross posted at Education Is My Life and Teachers as Technology [...]

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