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Virginia Journal of Education


First Person: Narratives from the Classroom

Hip-Checks, Squealing and Teaching Empathy


By Amy Issadore Bloom

I’m on my knees in the hallway, and nobody seems to notice. Like a middle-schooler myself, I blurt out sarcastically, “Really?!” 

I don’t usually go into the hallway during dismissal because it’s total chaos. The seventh-grade lockers are outside of my classroom. The girls are always squealing or crying about something. The boys like to hip-check each other into the lockers. I can never tell if they’re playing, or if a fight might break out.

I was on my way to another teacher’s room. In a domino effect, one student bumped into another, who bumped into me with too much force. Next thing I knew, I was on the floor, with students just walking past. It was bad enough that I was a teacher. Worse that I was pregnant. And unacceptable that the kid who bumped into me just walked away.

I’m sure he didn’t mean for it to happen. But he must have known. It’s like when you “tap” a car bumper. You know you did it; whether or not you choose to investigate the damage or leave a note is another thing.

George was acting like the type of person who wouldn’t leave that note. It bothered me on many levels. Like any self-respecting teacher, I chased him down (To reprimand him? Make him feel bad?), only later realizing that my knees were bruised and swollen.

When questioned, George didn’t seem remorseful at all. I figured surely once he was approached...but 13-year-olds are wired to be defensive. He didn’t ask if I was OK, or even recognize his behavior was too rough and physical for a school hallway.
 
“Juan bumped into me,” he simply said. “It wasn’t my fault.”

He seemed unfazed, flippant. Granted, to a seventh-grader, maybe a teacher isn’t a “real” person. George may very well have shown more compassion for a friend, or a girl he bumped into.

Still, the incident had me shaken. I emailed the guidance counselors and administrators later. They were overly concerned, checking in on me both in person and through email a few times the next day. I guess nobody wants an injured pregnant teacher on their hands.

I wasn’t looking for extra attention, and I didn’t necessarily want to get the boys into trouble. I just wanted certain school personnel to know that the halls should be better monitored, and many of our students needed serious lessons in empathy and accountability.

But who should teach these things? School? Family? If we go by the “it takes a village” approach, then it must be a shared responsibility, accomplished through years of modeling compassion and kindness to those around us.
 
We can teach empathy by modeling how to treat others. It’s students seeing teachers pass around a card for a colleague who is ill, or has lost a family member. It’s watching the grown-ups at home help an elderly neighbor. It’s taking time to talk about the feelings and actions of characters in books, television and movies. It’s helping teenagers see beyond “me, me, me.”

I’m fairly certain there’s no link between George being a mediocre, lazy and disorganized student in my class and his lack of empathy. These characteristics fueled my frustration, but weren’t necessarily the cause of his reaction toward me in the hallway that day.

When I shared the story with one of my classes the next morning, Sergio responded, “Who was it? I’ll punch him!” I was shocked and oddly flattered by his reaction. Sergio was a troublemaker in class but he apparently had a great deal of empathy (if you can take his call to violence with a grain of salt). He knew, almost instinctively, that what happened to me, and George’s reaction, was not OK, even if it was an accident.

In a way, that’s what gives lessons on tolerance and empathy so much potential. Compassion for others and knowing how to read emotions cuts across racial, socio-economic and educational levels. I use “lessons” loosely as these are not things that can be easily wrapped up into a single lesson plan.

A study done published in the June 2014 issue of Journal of Social Issues observed nearly 900 young people, ages 11-13, and found that those with higher levels of empathy were more likely to engage in “assertive bystander behavior.” In other words, they were willing to stand up to a bully on behalf of someone outside their peer group.
This type of behavior should be a main goal in schools—a “common core” in the truest sense. Empathy isn’t necessarily a quantifiable thing, but we certainly know when it’s missing, like the day I got knocked down. We just need to remember when it’s on display too, like those giggling, squealing, crying girls at their lockers.

Issadore Bloom (bloomindc@gmail.com), a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. To read more of her writing, visit her blog at www.bloomindc.com.

 


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