A Lesson in Empathy
By Kim Tucker
Supervisor of Curriculum & Instruction & Principal
Somers Point School District
There have been many lessons I’ve learned since our schools began emergency remote learning on March 16th, but the most important one for me has been about empathy. Families are struggling financially as family members are laid off and waiting for unemployment benefits to arrive. Teachers are overwhelmed with their new responsibilities while also teaching their own children at home. Students are missing us and missing the needed technology to successfully participate. Administrators are struggling to lighten the load for teachers and provide them with the support they need. Clearly there are plenty of avenues to channel our empathy into.
A video aired on CBS This Morning that illustrated how parents are struggling to balance work with their kids’ remote learning. The video illustrates what educators are seeing everywhere. Many parents are overwhelmed with emergency remote learning. While parents work from home, they struggle to keep students focused on school work while they work from home at the same time. Some parents report that they are working around the clock to keep up with their job and their children’s school work. Educators must be empathetic during this time. Families need to prioritize wellness over schoolwork. Perfection is not possible, and we need to have some grace at this time.
In response to this, schools must focus on the social and emotional well-being of students and families as a priority. The Somers Point School District recently began sharing wellness strategies and resources on social media on a daily basis. These tips can help families and educators manage mental health and the uncertainty of recent challenges. Strategies shared with families and educators have included deep breathing and positive self-talk. Physical education teachers are sharing ideas for physical activity and exercise. Guidance counselors are available to help students talk through their feelings. Principals and guidance counselors are spending time listening to family members as they communicate their frustrations and challenges. Administrators have found that it is more important than ever to see humor in situations and laugh at ourselves as we navigate this new terrain.
A recent blog by George Couros provided a graphic with the COVID-19 Hierarchy of Needs for Schools. This included the statement that, “School is important during this crisis but…not as important as the needs of our families who are experiencing anxiety and fear as we develop our new normal.” Also included in the graphic is a pyramid based on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This version prioritizes physiological needs, safety needs, love and belonging, esteem, self-actualization, and school is taking up the smallest part of the pyramid. Knowing this, educators can “Focus on connection first, everything else second” according to Couros.
So what decisions can school leaders make that demonstrate empathy to all our stakeholders? We need to recognize the professional burden placed on our faculty and staff during this personally stressful time. School leaders can provide encouragement and ask them what they need. The same is true for families. Our principals and superintendent routinely make calls to families with encouragement and ask them how we can help. We all need to set realistic expectations regarding what can be accomplished during this time. We cannot replicate what used to happen in school buildings at home, and we should not be trying to do so. School leaders can continue to support Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) as they shift from previously created SMART Goals to survival techniques. Many of our seasoned educators feel like they are suddenly in their first year of teaching as they navigate new technology and platforms. As school leaders, we must support educational continuity, but not without empathy for our teachers, students, and families.
An article in EdWeek articulated much of what I have been feeling. The article is titled, This is Emergency Remote Teaching, Not Just Online Teaching by Natalie B. Millman. I especially liked the subtitle: There’s a Difference. I’m not alone in originally thinking we could recreate school exactly as we left it on March 13th in an online platform. Milman reminded me that, “These are not normal teaching and learning conditions.” She writes about “pandemic pedagogy.” Milman reminds us that there is no playbook for this, but provides some useful suggestions that support teaching with empathy. My favorite is her last in the list of ten suggestions provided: Pause, listen, reflect and learn. That has been necessary for me. We couldn’t expect to get it absolutely right in week one, or week two, or now in week six or seven. And what is right for one family or teacher, may not be possible now for another. Empathy must lead our decisions and our responses.
Couros, G. (2020, April 8). Retrieved from https://connectedprincipals.com/archives/24550
Goldberg, J. (2018, September 23). Anger Management Techniques and Tips. Retrieved May 3, 2020, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/anger-management#1
Lederman, D. (2020, March 18). Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved May 3, 2020, from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2020/03/18/most-teaching-going-remote-will-help-or-hurt-online-learning
Milman, N. B. (2020, March 30). This Is Emergency Remote Teaching, Not Just Online Teaching. EdWeek. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/03/30/this-is-emergency-remote-teaching-not-just.html
CBS. (2020, May 1). Parents struggle to balance work with their kids’ remote learning. CBS This Morning. New York, New York. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/video/parents-struggle-to-balance-work-with-their-kids-remote-learning/