Sunday, October 19, 2014

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” ― Leo Buscaglia

In thinking about this week's blog, I have spent several hours making notes and reading articles online about EMPATHY.  I believe that although some children are instinctively empathetic, empathy should be taught in schools, and I do not mean just elementary schools.  Being able to show empathy and to extend oneself to others and feel with them is not only a gift, but also a key to successful relationships, both personally and in business. If you have not read Howard Gardner's 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, it is a terrific book which examines seven criteria which can make a behavior an intelligence, which is more than just measuring an IQ . Gardner specifically mentions Empathy under the Interpersonal relationship category, and he says that those with a high interpersonal intelligence are often successful as teachers, social workers, salesman, and counselors, just to name a few.

When I was teaching at North Allegheny for 35 years, our student body was involved in many worthy causes.  Although our district was quite affluent overall, some municipalities within the district were impoverished.  One of the favorite projects we did every year was called Santa's Stocking.  Each homeroom was given the name of 1 or 2 children- all ages, from babies to 15 years old- and homeroom representatives collected money and/or gifts.  To be on this gift list, families had to meet specific criteria as set forth by the North Hills Food Bank, and I remember that parents had to be out of work for at least two years.  Students were told at the beginning of this project that whatever gift(s) were bought by the classes, that would be all these children received from "Santa" that year, as the parents had no extra money for frivolities like Christmas presents.

Overheard chatter in the classes sounded like this:  "How could you NOT have Christmas presents?  That is so sad"  or  "I would cry if my mom and dad could not buy me new skis (or a car or a snowboard)." Perhaps  the greatest moment came when a favorite Social Studies teacher spoke to the entire school.  He told the student body that he did not remember what he received for Christmas last year, or a few years ago, but that there was one toy that he would always remember.  He was the son of a single mother, and there was no money for Christmas gifts at their house, because they did not even have enough money for food.  His name was given to a charity group, not unlike our Santa's Stocking, and he received a gift, the most important gift he had ever or would ever receive.  Just knowing someone cared enough to feel his pain - that he would have nothing for Christmas without their empathy and generosity, filled his heart with joy.  I think it takes a big man with big courage to share a personal story like this one, but this man is a teacher, and he knows he has a lesson worth teaching.  He still talks to all of the students every year, and the classroom discussions and the new feelings that the students shared because of his disclosure made, and continue to make, our school better.

If you are a teacher, perhaps you can ask your principal to partner with a group like the local food bank, for a canned food drive, Christmas gifts, or even a mitten tree. (I found out after all of the years of working with the food bank that gloves are the number one most requested item.) You could introduce the idea by having a student discussion or brainstorm some words to describe the emotions they think they would feel if they could not have Thanksgiving dinner, a winter coat and hat and gloves, or any holiday gifts.  Sometimes, just imagining such a scenario is impetus enough to help others.

There are so many great causes in our communities, and teaching our young people to show empathy for others is so important.  I always loved the day we wrapped the gifts for our "children" and then the entire class walked them down to the auditorium, which was filled with rows and rows of shiny new bicycles, giant stuffed animals, new winter coats and boots, and a most wanted toy for each child.  On the walk back to our now-empty classroom, students said things like "I hope she will like our presents" or "I wish I could see him when he sees the bike!"As the teacher, I always wrote a letter to the parents and asked them to send us a note about the gifts.  We usually received a thank you note, and sometimes a picture, and for many students, the warmth of that good feeling of helping someone and feeling their pain and joy was reignited.  I believe that although sometimes our classes gave simple gifts, there was nothing simple about the learning to feel empathy that happened.

We are coming up to a special time of year, which for some, will not be festive. 

Maybe you or your classes could make some magic happen for someone who is not expecting any, and they, too, can learn the lesson of empathy and the good feelings associated with giving.

As always, I welcome your comments or suggestions.  Best, Dede

Rittman Publishing, LLC

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