Cultivating Empathy

Healing our hearts so that we can help others.

"If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

– Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to the One Stone School in Boise, Idaho with a small group of Verdi Eco-High students. We attended their Hands Down. Voices Up. Summit where the One Stone students led with a revolutionary idea: to offer a student facilitated conference experience that encouraged "moments of vulnerability" to move us all a bit closer to empathy and understanding.

I watched as the Verdi Eco-High students entered a room of approximately 50 One Stone students and waited expectantly for something to happen. Slowly, the magic that is One Stone began:

"Wow! Are you from Florida? It must feel strange to dress for the cold here in Boise."

"Can I take you on a tour of our school?"

"Are you hungry? We have snacks and drinks!"

EcoSchool students were welcomed with empathy, consideration and kindness and over the course of three days they were empowered to participate in a series of exercises meant to inspire their own personal formative journey.

On a particularly impactful day I witnessed an EcoSchool student stand before a crowd of 100 individuals, bravely disclose a profoundly private struggle and thank a teacher at EcoSchool for being the driving force in saving their life.

This student's courage took my breath away and the response from the crowd? Snaps, silent applause, a standing ovation and the open arms of other students who felt a distinct connection based on a shared life experience.

I feel intensely grateful to have been present in that room, for the entire experience and have come to realize that this level of empathy is an essential building block of building a positive school culture.

Building a Culture of Empathy

The One Stone School uses, in part, the Design Thinking Process to bring empathy to the forefront of their iterative approach. All challenges require us to understand and empathize before we can define a problem.

Empathize -- Define -- Ideate -- Prototype -- Test -- Implement -- Reflect

As a cooperative school, the Verdi EcoSchool is actively building a community in which all individuals – students, educators, staff and families – enter into a collaborative learning and working relationship with one another. As members of an educational cooperative we commit ourselves to contributing directly to the overall well being of the school and to our children’s classroom experience. Our cooperative model is ever evolving and deeply inclusive. Our belief in the value of collaboration is what guides and sustains us. We rely on one another to participate responsibly to nurture our school community.

Understanding why we have intentionally chosen a progressive and non-traditional educational experience unites us as a community but we must be willing to continually reflect on our work together to ensure healthy, positive growth.

The Bystander Effect

A social psychology phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect essentially states that an individual may feel less inclined to take action because of the presence of others in a group. In a school community this effect can take many forms: the student who remains quiet when a child is ridiculed in their presence, the parent who chuckles uncomfortably when another parent passes judgment upon the choices of another, the educator who watches as their team members isolate and demean a co-worker.

As a member of a small school community I have seen and experienced this phenomenon first-hand and I would like to do more to educate both our School Family and the community at large about actions that we all can take to cultivate empathy as a guiding principle.