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Closing the Empathy Gap in Education

In the Hechinger Report, Amanda Wahlstedt wrote about the empathy gap she experienced as a poor student with a disconnected privileged teacher. She wrote:

As a young girl in rural southeastern Kentucky, I remember distinctly hearing my teacher talk about “first of the month-ers,” or people who were out and in the grocery stores at the first of the month, typically with shopping “buggies” overloaded with preserved food.

When I looked around the classroom I noticed many of my friends either staring timidly down at their desks or exchanging looks as the wealthier students encouraged the teacher on her rant.

Because the “welfare queen” idea is prominent among people who do not understand poverty, I wanted to excuse my teacher or at least only gently correct her.

Could she be blamed for not knowing the struggle of only being able to afford transportation to the grocery store once a month? I do not know, but I do know that when I would get into the car after school with dad wearing his tattered coveralls from working in the woods that day and he would offer to take me to the store, I would often say we should do it later; heaven forbid we saw one of my teachers.

There is an empathy gap between far too many educators and students like me, and I think it may explain why I so often felt disenfranchised in school.

To read more about Amanda's experience, continue here.

How might we take compassionate action to close this empathy gap? In our work at The Connect Group, we train educators, students, and families in empathic listening and speaking skills with Empathy Circles. We think of it similarly to meditation as a way of increasing mindfulness; Empathy Circles increase empathy. It's borne out of the work of Carl Rogers, and can be used in dyads or in groups. The instructions are attached to this blog, and influenced by Edwin Rutsch, and his commitment to the practice. Please contact me to learn more, and to hear how students are our co-facilitators in programs such as this one.



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Empathy Circle Instructions

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You're welcome, Dana! Thanks for all you do to support the movement, and for recommending the post! Our youth leaders are eager to serve, and found very empowered peers at the Sub-Committee meeting. Bravo!

Thank you so much Lee-Anne for your post! The Connect Group's development of your empathy circles is an exemplary model of intentional listening, reflection and sharing through authentic vulnerability. Profound! 

Having the blessing of your youth leaders facilitating and teaching empathy circles with our systems engaged youth in our City of San Diego Commission on Gang Prevention & Intervention's Youth Sub-Committee, we were grateful for their leadership on behalf of our youths' skill building of their empathy muscles.

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  • Youth Sub-Committee of City of San Diego Commission on Gang Prevention & Intervention
Last edited by Dana Brown (ACEs Connection staff)
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