When We Start with Empathy and Compassion, We Do What’s Right for Kids
Friday, January 17, 2020
by: Jonathan Raymond

Section: From our Executive Director


Jonathan Raymond



I love the baseball movie Field of Dreams. Who could forget the scene when Annie (played by Amy Madigan) attends a PTA meeting where they’re considering banning books by provocative author Terence Mann? “Who thinks the Bill of Rights is a good thing?”, she exclaims, “Who thinks we have to stand up to the kind of censorship they had under Stalin?” It’s a powerful and poignant scene.
I love the baseball movie "Field of Dreams." Who could forget the scene when Annie (played by Amy Madigan) attends a PTA meeting where they’re considering banning books by provocative author Terence Mann? “Who thinks the Bill of Rights is a good thing?” she asks. “Who thinks we have to stand up to the kind of censorship they had under Stalin?” It’s a powerful and poignant scene.

So, imagine my shock when I learned a school district in Mississippi a few years ago pulled Harper Lee’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," from 8th grade curriculum due to complaints that some of the book’s language “makes people uncomfortable.” Uncomfortable, because race and class and sexism are no longer issues in our country — so why address them in our schools? Are you kidding me?

How ironic when a message on a page of the district’s website says “'To Kill a Mockingbird' teaches students that compassion and empathy don’t depend upon race and education.” Exactly.

Our classrooms and schools must become our laboratories of democracy where children are engaged and find their inner power and voice. If we aren’t teaching our children empathy and compassion in schools, then where can we expect them to learn these critical life skills? How will they ever learn what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes, to understand differences and to suspend judgment? How will they learn to think critically through asking questions, to listen deeply, to become aware, and to begin to know themselves? Without learning empathy and compassion, we can’t expect them to speak up and act against injustice.

Great teachers know that learning is both social and emotional — not another “education fad” or thing on the plate. It’s how teachers connect and build trust with their students and families. These teachers understand the importance of relationships. It’s how they think about the work so that each child gets what they need to thrive and pursue their dreams, like a sunflower seed waiting to sprout and soar given the right soil conditions, water and sunlight. Doing this well requires understanding, empathy, and compassion. In short, rather than being another thing on the plate, this work is the plate. 

Understanding, empathy and compassion are also key to achieving equity in our public education system. Equity is a theme that dominates education conversations these days. What’s positive is that we are shining a brighter light on and doing something about the neglect that has plagued millions of children in our public school system for decades. What troubles me is that when you ask a dozen people what equity means, you get a dozen different answers. I believe the conversation needs to start with empathy and compassion before we can even really begin to have a conversation about equity. We need to ask ourselves, “How do we do the right thing for children?”

For me, equity means differentiating between equal treatment and equal consideration. Equal treatment is easy to do because it requires no knowledge and understanding of the people to whom you are trying to be equitable. So you will succeed in treating everyone equally, but fail in being equitable. Providing equal consideration, on the other hand, requires a deep understanding of the people, their context, and the larger system context. Doing so will most likely lead to unequal distributions, but that which will be far more equitable.

Banning books and censuring material under the guise of shielding our children from controversial topics and difficult conversations robs our children of the discourse and thinking they need to successfully navigate the 21st century. It is only with understanding, empathy, and compassion that they will learn the skills to fight injustice, address issues of equity, and advance a healthy democracy.
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