Empathy as Empowerment

Preparing students for leadership roles — by giving them a chance to think like leaders

July 2, 2017
white paper airplanes against a yellow globe, with one airplane flying higher

As a teacher at a downtown high school, some of my best classes happened when I threw away my lesson plan and took my students on a walk.

We’d search for famous tombstones in a 200-year-old cemetery. Inside an old gathering place for abolitionists, we’d read a speech Frederick Douglass once gave there. And every year, we’d examine the inner workings of the criminal justice system through readings, debate, and a visit to arraignment court.

Officially, I was an English teacher. But that title always felt incomplete. If I was only responsible for English, and the neighboring teachers handled only math or history, then who was going to make sure my students learned to be creative? Who would ensure they developed passions, cared about the world, and demonstrated empathy?

Too rarely in our schools do we give our students a chance to prepare for the leadership roles we need them to take on someday.

One morning, my students came in devastated by news of a 16-month-old who was hit by a stray bullet as he played on his front porch the day before. Our city’s murder rate was at a record high, and hearing that a baby was shot outside his own home left my students shaken. I put aside Romeo and Juliet and led my class outside. This time, we walked to the police department. At a press conference discussing the shooting, we spoke with the police chief and some assembled journalists.

Back at school, we discussed what we would do if we were the mayor. But instead of the open conversation we usually had after an act of violence in our city, I decided to give the class some structure. I pointed to a student and in an instant appointed him the mayor. I shuffled him to the front of the room, and then I sat in his seat.

“Mayor Robinson,” I called out in my best TV reporter voice, “the latest victim of gun violence in this city was a baby playing in front of his house. We’ve spoken to a class of teenagers who believe you’re not doing enough. How will you restore a sense of safety in our community?”

Mayor Robinson, my ninth-grader, smiled shyly. He cleared his throat and began an answer. Then another student assumed the mayor’s role, and then another.

Too rarely in our schools do we give our students a chance to prepare for the leadership roles we need them to take on someday. This role-playing exercise was a reminder that empathy isn’t only about social-emotional skill-building. It’s also a way to envision yourself in another person’s position — in a leadership position. You can’t aspire to be the mayor if you haven’t had practice thinking like a mayor. And English class is as good a place as any for that to happen.

Empathy isn’t only about social-emotional skill-building. It’s also a way to envision yourself in another person’s position — or in a leadership position.

I’ve been thinking about empathy a lot these days, as I finish the first year of a doctoral program that has me temporarily out of the classroom. This spring, my graduate school dean challenged my classmates and me to come up with a set of light lift, practical activities that a teacher can use in any setting to build empathy in students. In response to the challenge, I created a series of activities that put middle and high school students in the hot seat as important decision-makers. I designed the activities to be implemented as “do now’s,” the five- to 10-minute exercises that many teachers use to start class.

Here’s how it works: Over the course of a week, students grapple with a dilemma faced by someone like a judge, a school superintendent, or a politician. They hear two opposing opinions, review research, write and debate short arguments, and finally explore how the same issue was resolved in one community. In one scenario, students assume the role of a judge considering how to settle the case of a single mother arrested for shoplifting; in another, they act as a mayor debating whether to ban smoking in public housing.

Each scenario gets students thinking about real issues, while drawing on the academic skills (like writing and reasoning) that they use all day. While classes wouldn’t stay on these dilemmas for long, the impact could be lasting: they’d help students build their empathy muscles, set the tone for the day, and get them thinking like leaders.  

As teachers, we typically define ourselves by what we teach — physical education, art, middle school. What if we started defining ourselves by the types of people we’re developing? No matter our content area, we are all cultivators of character, engineers of empathy — and, I hope, builders of future leaders.

About the Author

Matt Presser
Matt Presser is a candidate for the Doctor of Education Leadership degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is a former teacher in the New Haven (CT) Public Schools and a former Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the US Department of Education. Follow him on Twitter at @mpresser5.
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