The cancer patients who came in with the "I may be sick, but I am not defeated" look in their eyes, as well as the ones who were so sick, they had all but given up, were exactly like the ones I had witnessed for those 30 months with Scott. The conversations in the waiting room were also the same, with phrases like "This scan is OK, but I have to have another one in 6 months" and "The radiologist sees a shadow; I think the cancer is back." I saw my former self in all of the people I spoke to, shared confidences with, and consoled. I felt their anxiety, and some of the wives confided in me that they could not tell anyone else, but since I was a stranger, they could tell me the truth - and the truth was that they knew the end was near for their loved one. I remember when I knew it was near the end for Scott, and as I listened to their stories, my heart broke all over again for these wives who would soon be widows. I knew just what they were feeling, because I had been in their shoes, and I am now a widow.
So what does all of this have to do with Education? I believe that teachers have great opportunities to be role models of caring and empathy. Because life is not perfect for anyone, and every person has had some pain and tragedy in his life, I think it is important that teachers extend themselves to students who are struggling with medical issues within their families and other issues beyond the student's control. In my own case looking back, I continued to teach for almost two years after Scott was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, and during that time, several of my students had a parent who was diagnosed with cancer. It was just heartbreaking. When the word CANCER is spoken, nothing is the same in life; with chemotherapy and radiation and appointments and restrictions, each family is compelled to create a "new normal." In the cases of two of my former students, each had to stop participating in afterschool activities to care for younger siblings after school. When cancer or serious illness creeps into a family, the entire family is affected, not just the person with the illness. For some students, school becomes the only "normal" part of their lives, and as teachers, we must give them a little bit of extra care, by talking, accommodating, sharing, caring, and most importantly, listening to them and empathizing with them.
I was never afraid to share appropriate feelings of empathy with the students I taught throughout my 37 years in the classroom. I had so many positive reactions from sharing feelings with my students, and they were so grateful that someone did not SYMPATHIZE with them (they were not looking for sympathy) but EMPATHIZED with them. They wanted someone to feel what they were feeling. (If you are unsure of the difference, this distiction between the two words is from Vocabulary.com: Empathy is heartbreaking — you experience other people's pain and joy. Sympathy is easier because you just have to feel sorry for someone. Send a sympathy card if someone's cat died; feel empathy if your cat died, too.)
I believe that students are drawn to those teachers who show empathy, and I also believe that every teacher has the ability to help all students to feel empathy, in many situations at school, not just when a student or his family has a family medical issue. Allow me to reiterate that as teachers, we have countless opportunities every day to model empathy.
Being with my friend reminded me of all of the good things that can happen when one person shows empathy toward another. I was glad that I went with her for her test and appointment, as it gave me the opportunity to help others by truly sharing in their grief, pain, and anxiety. Hugs and positive messages of encouragement were exchanged, as well as a true understanding and empathy between strangers. I was so happy I could help my friend (who got the best possible diagnosis of a clean PET scan), and I was truly touched by the empathetic human beings I talked with and cried with that day. They felt my loss of my Scott, and I felt their struggles and anxiety. Everyone felt better after talking.
Showing and receiving empathy is good for everyone, as a connection of empathy is a real and heartfelt connection. Always remember that you are not teaching a subject, you are teaching human beings. For me, lessons of empathy are just as important as subject matter.
As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions.
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Dede's book STUDENT TEACHING: THE INSIDE SCOOP FROM A MASTER TEACHER, has now won THREE awards.