Empathy: Exploring the Deeper Connections

As a community we continue to engage on our school theme for the year Empathy and Ethical Thinking. Whether it is through professional development for faculty and staff, programming with students, a more intentional focus in classes, or presentations to our parent community, it has been a tremendous experience so far this year.

Over the first few months, one theme that consistently comes up is the difference between Empathy and Sympathy. In a recent Upper School Morning Meeting, I showed the following video by Brené Brown.

The video vividly points out the differences between sympathy and empathy. This past week, the Parent’s Association welcomed Dr. Helen Riess, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of Empathy Research and Training in Psychotherapy Research group at Mass General Hospital, to talk about her research in Empathetics. Near the beginning of her talk (click here for an earlier version at a TEDx Event), she highlighted the Greek etymology difference of “sympathy” and “empathy”. Sympathy coming from “sym” “pathos”, meaning with suffering, and empathy coming from “em” “pathos, meaning in suffering.

If we start with the most basic definition of these words, the difference is so clear. To have empathy literally means to be in the same feelings as the other person. This idea means a person has developed a deeper connection to friend, family member, colleague, or stranger by being in that moment with them, with those feelings. In addition to this clear definition, Dr. Riess highlighted that compassion is the action that we take when displaying empathy. She differentiated that the empathy was the internal feelings you have, while compassion is the action you take towards a person.

As teachers and school administrators, the question becomes what does this mean to our students? What are the ways that students may develop empathetic responses towards their classmates? And how do we guide students towards learning with empathy?

The first comes through the regular conversations we have on an individual basis, in small groups, and as a community. What does it mean for a child if they see a friend looking sad or more reserved? We are trying to help students understand that these are times to engage with their friends and not avoid them. In many ways, this has been something that Brimmer students have regularly displayed. Often, listening to their friends and helping them when possible. The more complicated situations for students come when a person’s actions may be hurtful. The automatic human response, especially adolescents, is to rebuke the person. With teenagers, this can often have impacts on social circles which just furthers any divide that may be created between each other.

What if instead, we were able to help the members of the community to have an empathetic response?

Our hope, through this year’s theme, is to help students move past the hurt and work to understand what the other person may have been feeling. Perhaps someone is not hanging out on the weekends, because they have a family member that was recently diagnosed with a serious medical condition. Or could someone that is carrying a lot of anger, be carrying guilt for a decision they made at a different time.

In our classes, we are highlighting the importance of empathy as well. This takes a front row seat in Humanities and Creative Arts classes, where the foci of these classes is the human experience. Just imagine the last book you read or show you watched and the connection you developed with the characters. In history, teachers are helping students see history through more than one lens. This fall US History students have debated George Washington’s decision to maintain the status quo on slavery and recently discussed the question- should we celebrate Christopher Columbus or think about Thanksgiving in a different way based on the experiences of people that were colonized by Europeans?”

In our design classes, students regularly are working to understand the user as they developed their ideas. As a parent recently mentioned to me, “empathy is one of the pillars of design.” This comes to life in classes like Problem Solving for Design and Architecture, as students spend significant amounts of time learning about the needs of the users and important cultural information. I would invite you to explore more at the BrimmerID portfolio page.

Regardless of where students may end up falling on these debates, breaks from the normal routine provide an opportunity to pause and reflect. Whether the time-off means time with family and friends, volunteering, or just a slower pace, I hope that students can use the time to connect in a deep, meaningful, and empathetic way.

 

Tree of Life Reflection

After a night of celebration and excitement with the Red Sox winning the World Series, Mr. Vallely and I want to take a moment to reflect on two more solemn things from this weekend.

I want to start by taking a moment to reflect on the antisemitism this weekend that resulted in the murder of 11 members of the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, PA.

I can still remember the smell of smoke and charred wood from when I was 13. Just a few weeks before my Bar Mitzvah, a man had come into my synagogue in Albany, NY, dousing the pulpit and ark with gasoline, and setting it on fire in order to destroy the holiest part of the building. The person came into the synagogue for no other reason, other than it was a Jewish building. Thankfully no one was hurt and though the damage was extensive, it would eventually be repaired. For me, this was not my first nor would it be my last experience with antisemitism. There had been and would be more swastikas painted and engraved on walls, derogatory comments directed at friends, and pennies thrown at me as I walked to my synagogue. Yet, despite these experiences, like most, within the walls of my place of faith there was a sense of safety.

However, something has changed over the past few years. We have seen people feel emboldened to use hateful speech. We have seen words of hate and bigotry turn into more deadly actions. Targeting specific faith base communities because of their beliefs or the way they appear. A shooting at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin in 2012, the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, SC in 2015, and The Islamic Center of Quebec in 2017 are just the first ones that come to mind. Hate-filled people searching out those that had a different skin color or held a different faith.

Then. This weekend. This weekend we experienced a person filled with such vitriol go into the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, PA with the intention of killing as many Jewish people as possible. Another example of unchecked hate that has taken the lives of at least 11 people. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, daughters, and sons.

Words are so powerful. They have the ability to build people up or to cut them down. They have the ability to build deep, deep, profound connections or to develop deep misunderstandings that lead to inhumane beliefs. While this inexcusable tragedy has left many with more questions than answers, out of darkness there comes light. The days after this tragedy have shown an outpouring of support- the Pittsburgh Penguins canceling a Halloween Party and hosting a blood drive instead; church communities offering to line the entrances to synagogues to show solidarity and provide safety in numbers; Muslim organizations raising tens of thousands of dollars to support the victims’ families; and an outpouring of love and kindness. We only need to look at the overwhelming response of support across the country to understand that our world is not as broken as it sometimes feels.

When my childhood synagogue completed rebuilding the damaged area, it included a thirty foot stained glass window of the tree of life. In Squirrel Hill, PA, The Tree of Life synagogue’s namesake is a symbol in western faiths of peace and tranquility. Amidst the turmoil and chaos of our world, this symbol serves as a reminder to lead with kindness and love.

To honor the victims of this tragedy, let the words you use be a beacon for building people up, creating understanding, and bringing about peace. By doing this you can be a part of the light that pierces through the darkness.

A version of this statement was shared at Morning Meeting on Monday, October 29, 2018. It has been edited for this format. In addition, thoughts were shared by Carl Vallely on the internment of Matthew Shepard.

Inspired to Lead

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Last weekend I had the opportunity to see the historical musical narrative Hamilton at the Boston Opera House. As a lover of musicals and American History, I, along with my family, have been enjoying the soundtrack for the past two and a half years. While historians will point out some of the artistic liberties taken in the telling of the story, there is little doubt that the musical has reshaped the way in which an entire generation of Americans will view the Founding Fathers. For many young people, the musical has been a source of inspiration to find ways to lead. While Hamilton the musical did not share this specific quote, in 1784 Hamilton, under his pseudonym, Phocion, wrote, “A share in the sovereignty of the state, which is exercised by the citizens at large, in voting at elections is one of the most important rights of the subject, and in a republic ought to stand foremost in the estimation of the law.”
Over the past eight months the country has seen an uptick in student civic engagement, which has been focused on elections and voter participation. In the spirit of Alexander Hamilton and this national civic engagement, students at Brimmer led a Voter Registration Drive on Thursday during lunch. Regardless of their political beliefs, students were given the opportunity to register to vote if they were 18 years old or pre-register to vote if they were 16 years old. I am proud to know that our students are thinking about the power they either hold or will hold as voters.
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Previous article on Hamilton.

At the Intersection of Empathy and Ethical Thinking

I love going to the movies, and when a friend asked if I wanted to see Mission: Impossible, I could not resist the offer. So, there I was sitting in the movie theater enjoying some popcorn and ready to escape to the fictional world, when right at the start of the movie, within the first five minutes, Tom Cruise’s character, Ethan Hunt, was faced with a critical decision. Should he protect the plutonium that could be used by the bad guys to create a nuclear weapon or save his teammate and close friend? Here right in front of me, Ethan Hunt was at the intersection of empathy and ethical thinking, living out our theme for the year. And I was left wondering, how does one make this type of decision?

As you heard from Mrs. Guild and Mr. R-V, at the heart of empathy is being an authentic listener and working to understand and share the feelings of others. Ethan Hunt knew what his friend was feeling and wanted to help him, even if his friend was telling him not to worry and to save the world.

At that moment Ethan Hunt had to make a choice–to save his friend or to save the world? What is the correct decision? Now, I do not want to share a spoiler, but I know we cannot all be super spies and manage to both make the empathetic choice, while also saving the world from disaster. However, I have seen plenty of evidence of your classmates being engaged at the intersection of empathy and ethical thinking.

Last year the Middle School and Upper Schools came together to fundraise for hurricane relief. With three devastating hurricanes, Harvey, Irma, and Maria having ravaged Houston, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean Islands, a group wanted to help as many people as possible. However, they were faced with a decision on how to best direct the resources. Was there a right way? Is there always a right decision?

The second example from 2017-2018 was the emergence of a new community service effort–the Prison Book Program. In this program, students volunteered on weekends to send books to incarcerated people. Again, at the crossroad of empathy and ethics. Should someone in prison receive our help?

In both cases, students found ways to connect with the people impacted and made informed decisions. Whether it was finding an organization to distribute the funds efficiently or learning that by sending books to people in prison and supporting their development, it helps reduce the likelihood of them returning to prison, students used the research and critical thinking skills they learn in class to collect the necessary information to make an empathetic, ethical decision.

So, this year when you continue to volunteer at organizations such as Greater Boston Food Bank, Community Servings, Wingate Senior Center, the Charles River Clean-up, or by identifying organizations on your own, you are attempting to feel and understand what another person is going through and choosing to find a way to help those people.

This intersection of empathy and ethical thinking does not just live in the realm of social justice. It lives in our classes and hallways as well. As Mr. R-V just said, this is the purpose of the humanities is to challenge our understanding of the world through a different medium, to feel the story of another human, and to engage intellectually about the decisions confronted in the text. When you combine empathy and ethics, you get real life. Every day, you face these moments–a friend upset about something that was said about them, looking at the ethics of gene manipulation in science, or learning about another culture through our global programs.

But, I also want to challenge you today, as we start a new year. How can we as individuals and as a community do better? How can we understand what a classmate or colleague is going through and how can we better help them? Can we lead with kindness? Can we work towards having more in-person interactions and fewer online, where words can be misinterpreted and are often hurtful? The world around us is modeling something different, but let’s be better. Let’s be a model for empathy and kindness.

As anthropologist Jane Goodall said, “Young people, when informed and empowered, when they realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world.” “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world [and people] around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” What do you want your story to be this year? You do not need to be a super spy named Ethan Hunt. Let your story be one where you choose your path, listen and feel for those around you, and make choices that will better our community and thus our world.

1st Day of School

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1st Day of School 2016-2017

I have to admit, after nearly two decades in education I still get filled with all the same emotions that I did my first year in teaching. The weekend before the first day is always filled with excitement and a little nervousness and anxiety about the unknown. It has a lot of similarities to the buzz around Fenway Park on Opening Day. People gleefully walking around, filled with hopeful anticipation, while also holding onto the emotions that are stirred by the uncertainty.

The first day of school can feel very different for students and teachers. For students, it is about shifting gears. Most have summers filled with movement and activity. Even for those that had summer jobs or internships, it feels different coming back to their full-time job as students. In addition there are the questions that fill each student’s head. Will this class be a lot of work? Will the teacher understand how I learn? Will I make new friends?

For teachers, they are feeling many of same emotions. Teachers are also feeling excitement for the learning that lays ahead, but nerves about the unknown class dynamics that may exist. Teachers may be wondering if their updated lesson plans will be effective. Will their students be motivated learners? Will they connect with their students?

While there is no “right” way to start the school year, over the past ten years I have chosen not to use my first class to go over the syllabus. While it is meaningful to set the expectations and establish norms for the classroom, I wanted to use the initial time together to lower first day anxieties and start building relationships. As a science teacher this usually involved a mysterious demonstration that would create a “wow” moment, but then would challenge students to figure out how the chemical reaction worked.

Getting to Know YouHowever, the most important activity I ask my students to do is the first homework assignment where students fill out a sheet sharing personal information. It includes highlights of their summer, an accomplishment they are proud of from the year before, something they think I should know about them, and a goal they have for themselves.

Regardless of what happens during the first class, that time is an opportunity to start the process of relationship building. As much as our classrooms are places of learning, they are built upon a relational foundation. In Whistling Vivaldi, by Claude Steele, and Unselfie, by Michele Borba, the authors independently share that when a student feels that a teacher cares about them, the student does significantly better in the class. While one activity will not be enough for the entire year, it is a good start.

Whether you are about to have your first class this week or are in the first weeks of your school year, work to authentically connect with your students. The impact of relationship building can have huge positive impacts. Here are just a few easy ways to get going:

1) Learn your students’ names: Whether you use seating charts, look at pictures, or just memorize them, take the time to learn the names of your students, what they preferred to be called, and how to properly pronounce their name. There is nothing that makes a person feel seen more than knowing their name.

2) Show interest in their lives outside of classroom content: By asking students about what they do outside of school is a great way to connect. Did they improve their time in yesterday’s Cross Country meet? What part did they get in the school play? What song or piece are they working on in band or choir?

3) Ask student’s to share information about themselves: Learning about a child’s goals for the year, a challenge they overcame, or something they are proud of helps you connect with the student. Just this week my son’s 1st grade teacher sent home a two page Getting to Know You sheet to fill out. My family was so touched that the teacher was taking the time to read over all the answers and wanted to gather this type of information about our child.

What are some of the techniques you use to connect with students at the start of the year and start the process of building a yearlong, and often longer, relationship?

Thoughts on the Class of 2018

During the Brimmer and May Commencement we work to honor the accomplishments of the graduating class. During the primary graduation speech, we read vignettes about each graduate highlighting their time at Brimmer and May. To view the full graduation or watch the vignettes, you can click here for a replay of the Commencement Ceremony. The individual stories start at the 23:00 minute mark.

I had the opportunity to speak to our 12th grade students and families the night before Commencement and then to give concluding remarks at the Commencement ceremony. Here are my remarks about Brimmer and May’s incredible graduate, the Class of 2017.

Senior Dinner Speech, May 31, 2018

Thank you to all the students and families for joining us this evening to celebrate the Class of 2018.

I want to share a story I heard earlier this year. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo came through the Caribbean and left a path of destruction. It made landfall in Charleston, South

Class of 2018

Photo Credit: David M. Barron, Oxygen Group Photography

Carolina and at the time, it was the most devastating hurricane on record. After the Hurricane had moved on there was a reporter along the shoreline looking at a row of houses. Among the destruction only one house remained standing. The reporter found the owner of the house that survived and ask the woman, “why did your 150 year old house survive while the other houses were washed away by the sea?”

The woman answered, “When they built my house first they laid the big field stones, then they added smaller rocks, sand, and dirt. Then they repeated this layer after layer after layer until they were done.” The reporter said “I see, I see, but how did your house survive?

The woman repeated, “First they put down the large field stones, then smaller rocks, then they filled in with sand and dirt. Layer after layer until the foundation was complete.” Again the reporter said, “Yes, yes, I understand, but WHY is your house still standing. All the other houses were washed away.”

The woman repeated again, “It is because of the foundation. They put down layer after layer until they had built a strong foundation.” Again the reporter said “I get it, they put down all the rocks to make the foundation, but you have not told me why your house is the only one still standing?”

The woman finally just responded, “It must have been an act of G-d” and she walked away.

As individuals and a group you have each helped to strengthen our School’s foundation. You brought your unique talents and views to Brimmer. This school is built upon the foundation of all those that come through and each of you has helped to put down a new layer, fill in the gaps, and strengthened the foundation. You have engaged in profound discussions in class, raised awareness of important issues, brought joy to audiences through performances, raised championship banners in the gym, and brought a new level of creativity to the school. Your class has left a strong base for those that follow you.

At the same time each of you have been building your own personal foundations. Layer by layer, grade by grade, each year, strengthening the base that you will build upon in the years to come. The field stones of knowledge, rocks of extracurricular activities, and the sands of experience.

As you move on from Brimmer, remember your foundation. You will experience all the highs and successes of life, but will also be faced with the storms that life often brings. The house that you begin building in the coming year and will continuously work on during your life, will sit upon your Brimmer experiences and can bring you stability throughout your life.

And to help you with the small fixes that may come up, I hope that the toolkits you’ll find in your bags will remind you of your Brimmer foundation and help you make any adjustments along the way.

It has been a true pleasure getting to know each of you over the past two years. And I cannot wait to hear about all your successes in the years to come. Congratulations.

Commencement Concluding Remarks, June 1, 2018

I present to you the Brimmer and May Class of 2018!

As we near the end of Commencement, I wanted to take one last moment to address this year’s graduates.

In front of us you sit. 37 unique individuals with your own talents, ideas, and futures. We just heard of your stories, your passions, and your strengths. How you have left an indelible mark on the school, one which the classes that come after you will build upon as they work towards their future. Today we focused on all the success that you had individually and the great things you accomplished as a grade. However, for every success there were failures, skinned knees, stumbles, disagreements, and mistakes. Self doubt has most definitely crept in at times.

Maya Angelou in an interview once said “We may encounter defeats, but we must not be defeated. It may even be necessary to encounter the defeat, so that we can know who we are. So that we can see, oh, that happened, and I rose. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose. I didn’t run away – I rose right where I’d been knocked down.”

As you, the Class of 2018, move forward in life, you will be faced with great successes but also more defeats than you will be able to count. Each day we are faced with choices. Not every decision you make will work out. Let your defeats, your failures, be opportunities to grow and learn. Let those be the moments where you rise back up and allow them to be defined as moments of growth instead of failure.

Along the way, do not forget your Brimmer foundation. Hold tight to the lessons you learned here and use them to guide you through all the failures. As Abby Wombach recently said at the 2018 Barnard Commencement: Failure is fuel and fuel is power. I say, may your failures fuel you in the path ahead and lead to all the successes you each deserve.

Congratulations to each of you and to your families.

Flames of Achievement

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At Opening Convocation  in September, I shared a quote from Golda Meir. She said, “Make the most of yourself by fanning the tiny, inner sparks of possibility into flames of achievement.” As we near the end of the school year, it seemed apropos to look back at some recent observations that show the depth of achievement our students have made this year. One such example of students transforming the sparks of possibility into flames of achievement comes from the success of our spring sports teams.

All of our teams should be proud of their seasons, including the Varsity Baseball team, which won the League Championship, but I want to highlight the Girls’ Varsity Tennis and Girls’ Varsity Lacrosse teams. Both of these teams have generally flown under the radar during the spring, but this year, they made Brimmer history by each winning their team’s first league championship. Two teams that came into the year with modest definitions of success, both saw those sparks catch fire.

In the classroom, it seems like it was not that long ago that the Class of 2018 was starting Upper School. Over the past few weeks, teachers and administrators have been busy listening and watching our twelfth grade students present their culminating humanities project. Each student dived deep into the works of an author and produced a scholarly paper and presentation on their research. The students wowed their teachers with their interpretations of the text and the personal connections they made to their work.

A final example comes from the tremendous creativity that filled our School this week at the All-School Arts Celebration. I often find myself, and others, pausing in front of displays in awe of the way students have transformed their medium to create such wonderful artwork.

The list of personal and grade level achievements goes on and on. The students should be proud of their accomplishments this year! Billows of smoke have filled our hallways, from the sparks of possibility that have turned into their flames of achievement. Congratulations to everyone!

Gratitude

With apologies to my parents, I shared a story from my childhood during Upper School Morning Meeting while wearing my vintage Boston Celtics jacket. Ever since I can remember, I have loved the Boston Celtics. The images of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish running out of the tunnel onto the court and the sound bites of Johnny Most are etched in my memory.

As a child, I had talked to my parents about how much I wanted a Celtics jacket. I desperately wanted one of those hooded Starter jackets that everyone, at least it felt that way, was wearing. So when I opened up my birthday present that year and saw a satin green Celtics jacket instead of that hooded Starter, my heart was deflated. Of course, I feigned appreciation, wore it around the house, but remembered feeling embarrassed to wear it. It lived in my closet for a long time, until my parents were moving out of my childhood house. When I opened the closet and found the jacket, I immediately felt embarrassed about my lack of gratitude.

There, right in front of me, was the most incredible Celtics jacket one could own. This vintage jacket represented the 1980s Celtics and the magic, no pun intended, that Bird brought to the parquet. It was reminiscent of the fans cheering on the team with Red Auerbach sitting in the stands with a smile. I was filled with the disappointment of not recognizing at the time the incredible gift I had been given by my parents and that this gem had been buried in a closet for the better part of two decades.

Appreciation and gratitude are not always as straightforward as we think. Often, we are distracted by the moment and do not fully understand the meaning of our interactions. We get wrapped up in our hustle and bustle of our daily lives and take for granted that which has been right in front of us. While keeping in mind how hard it can be to be authentically gracious, it is important to think about ways to express appreciation to family and friends. We should take a moment to pause and express gratitude and appreciation for those around us.

As our 12th grade begins to close out their academic careers at Brimmer, I want to take a moment to share an appreciation. Each member of the Class of 2018 has uniquely made an indelible mark on our School. Whether they have been at the School for two years or thirteen years, they have contributed in ways that have defined us and moved us forward, each person leaving their prints on our School. Leading class discussions, mentoring other students, giving tours to prospective students, volunteering for countless hours in their free time, performing on stage, competing on our sports teams, and being a representative of School are just a few of the ways they have led our community.

Thank you.

We appreciate all that they have given to the School. We will miss them, and we wish them all the best as they begin their next journey.

I hope that the path they forge challenges them to grow, while also achieving all the success they each deserve.

 

Getting One Percent Better

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Like most of New England, I have been mesmerized by Tom Brady’s ongoing DocuSeries Tom vs. Time. At first I was intrigued to see the inner workings of the person who has been at the center of one of the most successful runs in sports, but as I watched I began reflecting on the ideas that were shared during the videos.

As I watched the second episode, I was struck by a comment made by Tom Brady’s quarterback coach Tom House. During the video, House refers to the preparation and work Brady does and his focus on improving in even the smallest areas. He says, in reference to Brady working to make a small adjustment to his throw, “You realize this is like nothing[the adjustment], but it’s big to him. Tom and some of these other elite quarterbacks, they don’t come to get five percent better. They come to get one percent better.”

Working to get one percent better struck me and has been on my mind since I watched the video. As fans, we see the results of a daily work regiment that is based on a growth mindset. Yes, the ultimate goal for someone like Tom Brady is winning the Super Bowl, however that’s not an actionable goal. Instead, the focus is on the small thing you can do each day to improve. Whether it’s throwing more touchdown passes, organizing your work more effectively, being a more active participant in class, or writing a stronger paper, you need to find ways to make small improvements. Students need to focus on getting better by one percent each day.

For students this means working to help them break down their big goals into smaller attainable goals or action steps. Brimmer teachers have shifted to writing their goals as questions, so that we can focus on the answers, or the actions, to get us to the goals. One goal I set this year was “How can we further improve the transition from middle school to high school for our ninth grade students?” Some of the action items were– survey ninth and tenth grade teachers to develop a list of key student skills; develop a ninth grade team approach for teachers; and improve the experience of eighth grade families and students at Curriculum Night. Truthfully, most of these action items had their own set of action items to create the one percent improvements needed to reach the goal.

While we do not want to lose track of where we are trying to go, we need to focus students on the small steps they can take to improve. The only way any of us can get better is to continuously improve. And, I do not know about you, but feeling like I only need to be one percent better each day feels much less overwhelming. Imagine the confidence we build in students when we empower them to improve incrementally instead of needing to make instantaneous leaps. We cannot expect them to turn a B- into an A or write a stronger paper without helping them define the one percent improvements. Every journey starts with a single step. I believe this is what Carol Dweck is trying to communicate with her growth mindset work, and the documented practice habits of Tom Brady may just be in one of her next books.