Start the Year with a Focus on Empathy in the Classroom

By Guest Contributor Amanda Schaffer, Online Professional Learning Product Manager, McGraw Hill School

Understanding and responding to other people’s feelings, actions, and words is difficult. It’s perpetually a challenge for many adults, and, of course, can be very hard for young people, who are still developing the skills necessary to comprehend experiences or viewpoints outside of their own. However, if there’s one thing that we’ve all learned from the trials of the past two years (especially those of us in the education space) it’s that our relationships with each other are crucial to our growth, our happiness, and to the strength of our communities. Being able to understand and empathize with each other creates a stronger classroom environment where every student feels welcome and ready to learn. Restoring the relationships between teachers, students, and every member of a school community is such important work for 2022.

If we take a moment to rewind back to the fall of 2020, when the isolation of the pandemic was at its height, many of us at McGraw Hill felt the pang of the break in our connection with the students, teachers, and parents that make our work so meaningful. We put our heads together and decided that the best way to empower our teacher friends during remote learning was to create a collection of free resources that could be used at home or in the classroom. At that time, a feeling of uncertainty was strong for most of us, and for many students. So, we decided that our resource packet should be designed to help students (and their supportive adults) practice bravery. Our first virtual care package, Bravery in the Face of Uncertainty, was created with teamwork, compassion, and a bit of fun.

In the following spring, as the pandemic dragged on, we collaborated to create another resource packet, this time focused on patience. Our Power of Patience virtual care package includes activities and resources intended to help students, parents, and teachers exercise patience with one another and with themselves.

Now, as the pandemic complicates yet another semester of school, in an environment with students attending classes in person, we have released an additional virtual care package, this time focused on empathy. Our Empathy Changes Everything virtual care package is intended to help us all – children and adults – find compassion for one another and work to better understand each other’s feelings as we share spaces after an extended period of disconnection.

As we set out to create these learning resources, our team thought it was important to center our work around a shared definition of empathy. We chose a definition from the Greater Good Science Center at the University of Berkely, which states that empathy is “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”

We also thought it was important to keep in mind, as we created resources for students and adults, that there are several types of empathy, such as cognitive empathy, which has to do with our ability to understand what others are feeling, and affective empathy, which has more to do with the feelings we have in response to others’ feelings. Each of the types of empathy – as well as the diverse ways that people experience empathy based on neurological differences and life experiences – are all relevant to understand and explore in the classroom.

Finally, we also determined that it was critical for us to keep in mind, and important for parents and teachers to understand, that empathy can, in fact, be fostered and encouraged in all of us. Time spent practicing and exploring empathy in the classroom is time well spent, for both young people and adults.

It is my hope that this resource collection – which includes activities, printable posters, a song list, worksheets, and more – will be another tool for teachers and parents to draw upon when working to restore relationships in the classroom and focus on student well-being after so much disconnection, obstacles, and even trauma. I hope that for all teachers and their students, 2022 is a year of rediscovering community, reestablishing relationships, and finding empathy for those like them, those not like them, and for themselves.

To view and download the Empathy Changes Everything virtual care package, or any of our virtual care packages, click here.

Amanda Schaffer

Amanda Schaffer has been an educator for over 18 years. She has worked as a middle school, high school and higher ed teacher. She graduated in 2003 with a Bachelors in Education from the University of Central Florida and later, graduated from Nova Southeastern with a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction. Amanda spent 7 years in the K-12 classroom and then moved on to spend the last 11 years in professional learning and higher education. As a product manager at McGraw Hill she enjoys researching and developing support strategies and tools for teachers to implement in their classrooms and is especially passionate about equity in education.