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

first day of school

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?