A Better Approach to Empathy-Building PDs

Long before being told so by the new generation of privilege shamers, I knew that the comfort in which I grew up and my smooth entry into adult independence, resulted not only from having parents who played by the rules, worked hard, and lived moderately but also from the fact the playing field favored, unfairly, my race.

So, the whole idea of “claiming” or “checking” my privilege completely put me put off. Those claiming their privilege came off as egocentric and self-righteous: “Look at me! See how self-aware I am!” At a book study once, a veteran teacher referred to how lucky she was to have grown up in a comfortable situation. A much younger colleague praised her and said it was soooo important that everyone claims their privilege.

The motive behind the movement, at least in education circles, is to create empathy. The end in mind is that through greater empathy we can create more equitable schools. And the presumption is that one can’t develop empathy for another without fearless self-examination.

Now, it’s not that there’s nothing to that. I freely repeat the meme that you can’t walk in another’s shoes until you take off your own. But there are several problems with this approach.

For example, a common professional development exercise has everyone line up and take one step forward or one step back depending on whether they’ve experienced good things or bad things that are read off a list. The good things include items like, “Both my parents went to college.” The bad things include things like, “A friend in high school died violently.”

Going into the activity, at least for the first time, it’s easy to expect that everyone will move forward and backward about the same number of times and end up about even. Instead, one group keeps getting farther ahead while another group keeps getting farther behind, leaving a big gap. It can be an eye-opener, no doubt, and isn’t an entirely useless activity.

But the activity only feels like it’s creating empathy and can easily backfire. For example, someone can say, fairly, “Hey, this proves that no matter our past, we ended up here together, so what’s the big deal?” Arguments can break out as to the cause of the gap. Some will say that it illustrates the accumulation of the rewards brought by modest living in families who put building better lives for their children first. Others believe the gap illustrates that one group only got ahead by oppressing or exploiting the other.

Ultimately, the exercise only points out that lots of people come from crappy circumstances and others don’t, which pretty much everyone knew to begin with. It does nothing to teach what it’s like to actually live a different life. And I don’t see how it inspires much action.

Here’s what I mean. In a Jo Nesbo crime novel, a character describes compassion as sharing the feelings of another and empathy as sharing the experiences of another. Those definitions may not be technically correct, but they do point out an important distinction. Wherever you end up after stepping forward or backward in the empathy activity, you look around and definitely feel something for colleagues who land ahead or behind you. But you still haven’t walked in their shoes, no matter what you feel for them. And you mostly end up thinking about yourself.

In contrast to activities designed to build empathy through ego-tripping self-awareness, I know of no better empathy building professional development activity than reading a good book. (See The Practical Application of Fiction.) Seriously. Settle down for a few hours with Native Son, by Richard Wright, Nigger by Dick Gregory, Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, or Why We Can’t Wait by Martin Luther King Jr., and you will experience systemic racism, bigotry, oppression, and exploitation as much as can anyone who hasn’t faced those evils first hand.

And that will inspire you to work for more equity in education far more than walking forward and backward in your school’s library.

 

 

Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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