Equity Starts with Empathy

December 19, 2019

By Jeff Waller, Co-Author and Co-Creator of the 7 Mindsets

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffMWaller

If we want to truly invoke Equity in education, it will happen at the tip of the spear; when more of us educators truly appreciate the circumstances of our students and adapt our curriculum and systems to meet them where they are at.

The first time we taught the 7 Mindsets to students was at a local middle school.  We kicked off the program with a 2-day workshop for 51 at-risk students. My partner, Juan Casimiro, would always ask the worst question possible for a group of middle schoolers.  He asked, “Who does not want to be here?”  It really is an awful question, and one I believe should never be asked of an 8thgrade boy.  But we got our answer.  A number of the students raised their hands, but one student in particular really let us have it.

Daniel was a tough 8thgrade kid.  His parents had come from Mexico when he was young.  His life had been tough, and this was an opportunity for him to release some of his frustration on us; and he did.  I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something along the lines of, “This workshop is a joke and you guys are a joke.  The only reason I am here is because my mom made me come to school today and my teacher made me come to this program…but trust me, I will not be here tomorrow.”

I was angry.  We were providing the program for free and truly wanted to help.  I felt disrespected.  I was fortunate that day to have another partner in the room.  Nashid Sharief had grown up in Detroit where he eventually taught math to high school students.  He understood something I later came to learn.  For a student to get up and say something like that to adults, meant there was probably a whole lot of things going wrong in his own life. I remember Nashid telling me,  “You just never know what happens to our students before they get off the bus in the morning.”

Nashid went into the audience where Daniel was sitting and sat next to him.  He didn’t seem to say much.  They just kind of hung out the rest of the morning.  The frustration and anger seemed to leave Daniel’s face and he started to engage.  This was the most I ever could have hoped for given Daniel’s initial response.

Something amazing took place the next day.  At the end of our program Daniel stood up and apologized.  He explained to us why he said what he had said.  Things had been happening at home with his family and he was angry.  Better yet, he went on to share his goals and dreams with the rest of the class.  He started to cry and many of his classmates came to his side.  It felt like a very big moment for him and his life.

The real magic took place the next week.  We got a call from his math teacher.  She let us know that Daniel had come to her before class that day to talk.  She said she had never heard him speak other than when he responded to her calling roll.  That morning, he handed her the math test that had been graded the prior day.  He told her, “I would like to retake this math test because a C is not good enough for me anymore.”

The system was stacked against Daniel.  His parents did not speak English.  They did not value education.  In fact, he would regularly miss school to help his dad make some money landscaping. He did not have a computer at home and there were no real adult mentors or role models in his life.  No one from his family had ever graduated high school much less attended any kind of college.  He was one of those kids that gets lost in the system, that gets frustrated, and that could ultimately become a statistic.  He was one of those kids the system does not seem to work for. Nashid, in a brief moment of true genius, had changed the trajectory of Daniel’s future.

I have heard hundreds of presentations and discussions on equity.  I have read a large number of books.  I have seen schools and school districts make Equity and top priority and require it be addressed in all new initiatives.  What I have honestly never seen are solutions that truly move the dial. What I have seen are extraordinary teachers who incorporate it into their classroom.  They are able to do it for one simple reason.  It is that magic word we continue to hear over and over. It is because they have “Empathy”.

Education is only as good as the teachers in the moments they interact with their students.  The only way Equity will ever be truly executed is in those moments.  It is when a teacher truly understands and appreciates who their students are, where they come from, and what is going on in their world.  It is only then that they are able to take their wealth of knowledge and utilize education to meet their students where they are at.  It is only then, that they can make their content and classroom experience relevant and truly engaging for the modern youth.

When you break education down to its atomic level, at the very heart of everything, the root cause of good and bad teaching it built on the relationship between the students and their teachers.  What Nashid taught me that day was this: The fact that he listened to Daniel and got Daniel to understand that he empathized; and once that happenedeverything in Daniel changed.  The thing that allowed Nashid to truly help Daniel was understanding, it was empathy.

It is my assertion that if you want to invoke higher levels of equity in your school or district, it starts with developing the Mindsets, learning the strategies, and providing the tools that allow teachers to get to know their students, to understand and appreciate their worlds, and to adapt their curriculum and coaching to that end.

I learned a powerful lesson from Nashid.  He once shared with me, “There is no such thing as a bad kid, only good kids making bad decisions.”  The very best thing we can ever do to help students make good decisions is understand them and learn what is at the heart of their bad decisions.  Empathy is the path to equity and the ability to give every student the opportunity to create for themselves a life they can be proud of.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffMWaller