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March 3, 2021

Responsive Classroom: Empathy Is The Key

I learned a new word: kuleana. It’s a Hawaiian word that means one’s personal sense of responsibility.

I accept my responsibilities and I will be held accountable.

As an educator, having a vision is important. We have a great responsibility to our students and to society. I’m privileged to be an educator, and part of my vision is to teach children not only academic skills, but social-emotional skills that will prepare them to master this concept of kuleana and use it throughout their lives.

This same personal sense of responsibility is naturally embedded in the work I do every day. I’m part of a community of educators who believe in the principles of the Responsive Classroom, a K-8 approach to teaching and learning which includes specific tools, strategies, and practices to help teachers provide a high-qualityeducation to every student, every day. It’s not an add on nor a stand-alone program. These principles, woven into everything we do, how we speak, and how we model behavior, are based on research that shows a strong link between academic success and social-emotional learning.

Because of my deep belief in these principles and practices, I see teaching as a profession that is not only a privilege, but also a role vital to the growth and development of our society. I see children as the hope for our future. It’s not enough to impart knowledge. As educators, we must support our students as they create, communicate, and collaborate. We must do this while fostering a sense of belonging, significance, and fun for each of our students — every day. When intertwined with a strong, appropriately challenging curriculum, the Responsive Classroom approach allows teachers to guide children in becoming critical thinkers and problem solvers, while keeping the concept of teaching the whole child at the forefront.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this vision and the responsibility that comes with teaching over the past few months. It seems that now, more than ever, I must recommit myself to the belief that the Responsive Classroom approach teaches students the social, emotional, and academic skills needed for school success, while building positive learning communities.

Our responsibility is more than creating a safe learning community in our schools and classrooms. It’s helping children build coping skills as they navigate through this new, sometimes turbulent social reality — especially when they leave our schools and classrooms. We want them to feel safe at school, but what can we do to help them when they walk out of our classroom doors?

As of November 16, 2016, the Southern Poverty Law Center had found 701 “incidents of hateful harassment” in just one week after the election. This indicates a sudden rise in aggressive behavior, inflammatory language, and outright bullying in the environments where our students live and learn. Are the strategies we teach our students and the positive behaviors we model enough to sustain them all day, every day?

I want my students to remember to treat other members of our community the same way they want to be treated. To do that, we need to know each other on a deeper level. So where can we start?

Start With Empathy

Teach Through a Lens of Understanding

Tania Singer asserts that due to affective plasticity and long-term alterations of brain systems involved in empathy, and related positive affect such as compassion, “Training compassionate responses may, therefore increase the resiliency to aversive events, possibly by upregulating networks associated with positive affect, reward, and attachment.” Thus, educators can teach with this in mind, seeking to understand something or someone first, as an act of empathy. The Responsive Classroom approach allows teachers to interact with students and look at lessons through this lens.

For example, as a fourth-grade teacher, I start my day with a simple yet powerful ritual called Morning Meeting. If you’re new to the Morning Meeting, watch Ms. Noonan engage in the practice in this Teaching Channel video. Morning Meeting offers valuable opportunities for teachers to model and children to practice social-emotional and academic skills that carry through the rest of their day. The four components to Morning Meeting are Greeting, Sharing, Group Activity, and Morning Message. You don’t have to be an expert to see the benefits. Every teacher can weave these first two powerful practices into their morning routine this week.

Start With Two Powerful Practices: Greeting and Sharing

Greeting: We gather in a circle to greet each other by name each day. Sometimes we share a simple “Good Morning” or a silly greeting chosen to make us laugh and have fun. Through this component of Morning Meeting, we instantly create a sense of belonging and significance for each member of the class. We take the time to notice each other. This may be the first smile or positive contact a child has each day. By participating in our greeting, we model real concern and compassion for each other.

Once the greeting is finished, I often debrief with my students. “How does starting our day with a greeting make you feel?” I get a variety of answers such as, “It feels good to smile at someone,” or “It’s a friendly way to start our day.” One day a child said, “It feels good to be noticed and to feel part of a community.” Wow. Mic Drop!

Sharing: Through sharing, we get to know each other in ways that transcend the four walls of the classroom. We listen to understand — to be curious and learn more about each other. We ask probing questions and make thoughtful and respectful comments. We find out so much about each other and the things we’re learning in class.

Like adults, children are social beings. We learn through communicating with others — and this is true no matter the content. Knowing how to observe and reflect, to speak and to listen, are skills fundamental to our ability to learn. These skills enable us to exchange perspectives and ideas, explain our thinking, and critique the thinking of others — proficiencies that children need in all areas of school and life.

These skills are vital to respectful and critical dialog as children grow and become part of a global community. We, as educators, owe it to our society to not only educate our children, but to create a safe and nurturing culture in our classroom communities. It’s our personal responsibility — our kuleana.


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