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There is no education without empathy

“Maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy,” says Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson. “Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’”

The famous astrophysicist turned ubiquitous social media celebrity was talking animal rights, not education policy, when he first made these remarks. But his point echoes in the classroom.

As educators and parents, we want our kids to be more tolerant, understanding, and thoughtful. But empathy has practical applications too. As this article in Forbes points out, classroom lessons with a strong focus on empathy often result in higher test scores.

Winds of change?
In Chicago, students who enrolled in the Changing Worlds program, a long-running arts and education effort that focuses on community tolerance and inclusiveness, scored on average 12 percent higher on standardized tests compared with students who did not participate in the program.

Empathy is critical for students. It’s also critical for teachers and school leaders.

As author Bob Sornson writes, “Empathy is the ability to understand how someone feels because you can imagine what it is like to be them.”

To address the needs of their communities, school leaders must learn to relate to the experiences of parents and students. It’s that kind of empathy that promises to help educators better meet the needs of their local communities.

Writing for Edutopia, Harvard doctoral candidate Lauren Owen lists several ways that empathy improves the school experience.

Empathy strengthens school culture
Making an effort to understand others’ experiences builds trust and encourages those around you to share, writes Owen. In an increasingly diverse world, it’s important for schools to ensure that community members feel included. Only then will everyone feel empowered to contribute.

Empathy empowers the community
Speaking of empowerment, experts say empathy among teachers leads to more collaboration, inside the classroom and out. Encourage your community to make suggestions about your teaching style and check in regularly to get a sense for how they feel about your work.

Empathy inspires leadership
As school leaders, it’s critical to understand your audience. Empathy is one way to bring out latent leadership in staff and students. Give aspiring leaders a voice and help them contribute to positive changes or reforms in your district.

Whether through an entirely new curriculum, board meetings, or some type of online system that invites students, teachers, parents and other community members to share their own ideas and experiences, empathy is a potentially powerful tool for education.

What ways do you promote empathy in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Want to create a more inclusive and understanding environment for parents, students, staff and others? Start by giving your community a voice.