Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Sun 3/13/2005 3:03 AM
Random Thought: Empathy, Another word for My Dictionary of Good Teaching

Winter and Spring are engaged in interplay. The nights, getting imperceptibly shorter, are still a chilly mid to low forties, with an occasional nippy dip into the 30s. The ever lengthening days are climbing into the balmy 60s and summery high 70s. The co-eds are grasping every daylight moment to bask in dutiful worship of the sun as they prepare for our Spring Break. It's as if by laying prone on the quad, just lying there, inert, revealing as much flesh as they publicly dare, they believe they possess such presumptive force that they can nudge closer the arrival of spring's "nectarian" times, lengthen the days, increase the sun's tanning strength, warm up the nights, lower the convertible tops, heat up the coastal sands, and bring on the blossoms of the snowy dogwoods and showy azaleas.

In the midst of this intramural sport between the seasons, there I was, again on the cool front stoop where I'll probably be grounded from power walking or any other exercise, according to my doctor, for another four and a half months. The sounds from a CD medley of Broadway hit songs floated out the front door. I had been in such deep reflection. Aside from mourning the loss of my beloved Tarheels in the ACC tournament, I was thinking about another word for Kenny. Kenny had been breathing down my neck for another entry into our DICTIONARY OF GOOD TEACHING. "Okay, you're recovering. Think you can get back to work and come up with another word to guide my teaching? Not just a word, or something off-the-wall, but something that gets to the meat of teaching," he said.

Something meaty. I thought the meat was somewhere in a long e-mail I had just opened from an eighteen year old student whom I'll call Dotie. Her father, with whom she was very close, had died six years ago of colon cancer. She couldn't let go of her memories. She hadn't talked with her father during that dark year as he withered away. She was angry with him for dying and being left alone, more so for not fighting, and especially for becoming reclusive. Every day, in earlier e-mails during my convalescence at home she had been engaging me in conversation, asking about my health, talking about attitude, and urging me not to give up on life. Though I had constantly reassured her, I thought at times I had detected an underlying anxiety. It was more than anxiety. I didn't know at the time she was reliving the horrors of losing her father. When I had come into the class that first day of the semester and had announced soberly that I had cancer and was going to have an operation, "a shiver ran up my spine and I turned ice cold and paralyzed as if I was frozen in a block of ice." She was nearly consumed by a strong, dark, and paralyzing fear as she involuntarily evoked deeply buried images of her father. "I couldn't think of anything else. I couldn't focus. I couldn't study. I was so scared for you that you would die like my father did." Yet, my cancer, and especially my open discussion of the cancer with her, somehow built a bridge between me and her, and gave her permission now to talk eventually about something "I never want to think about, but always do even if it's still so painful after all these years."

Now that I'm back in class and "cured," she was sharing her feelings. And, for the first time she wanted to talk. And, talk she did. She talked about her loneliness, sense of abandonment, sadness, and anger. She had kept them inside her all this time. When it had been addressed by her family, school councilors, and friends, it was usually as, in her words, "no one gave a real damn....They just gave me a bunch of going through the motions and cold 'get over it and get on with it.'" As the years passed, her feelings, by her own admission, had become an increasing load to bear. They were corrosives that had been hollowing her out. They were chains that had tethered her. They had been conquering her. They were distracting pulls on her soul affecting her school work. She had become distant from her mother for reasons I won't go into. She suffered abusive and "pimping loser boyfriends." She got into alcohol and drugs "although I've cleaned that part of me up." She finished this anguishing message with: "I didn't and still don't need sympathy. What I really needed and still need is understanding. No one thinks my feelings are real. They are. I need someone to just listen and value what I have to say. I wrote this so you and I could better understand me and what makes up a large part of my life....I sometimes don't do things I'm supposed to do because I drift off thinking about what might have been with my father here....Thanks for being someone who can understand and just listen to me without judging me and brushing me off," she wrote. Her last sentence read, "I feel better. I really do, like I just had a spiritual vomit that got rid of something bad I ate. Maybe I can be okay."

As I read this last e-mail with a tear in my eye, I thought once again of Kenny's request. Something with meat on the bones. Then I heard a tune from that CD. I perked up. Anna, from THE KING AND I, was singing, the delightful song, "Getting to Know You." Know the lyrics? "Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you. Getting to like you....Getting to know you, getting to feel free and easy when I am with you....Getting to know what to say.... Haven't you noticed, suddenly I'm bright and breezy? Because of all the beautiful and new things I'm learning about you"

And it hit me. A word that Dotie had used: understanding. I came into the house, went to the land fill that is my computer desk, and plowed through the scattered notes written on pieces of anything I could get my hands on at any particular time. Finally, by some miracle, I found what I was looking for. Now, I've got it, another word for Kenny. He wanted something meaty. I'll serve him up a filet mignon!

Several months ago, I had been "remoting" through the channels one Sunday afternoon during the halftime of the football game I was watching. For reasons unknown to me, I stopped on PBS and started watching a show I never watch: "Business in Georgia." There was this brief conversation between Simon Cooper, President and CEO of Ritz-Carleton, and the moderator. I wasn't really paying all that much attention. I was wiling away the time waiting for the start of the game's second half.

"What is the most important element in Ritz-Carleton's success?" I vaguely heard the moderator ask.

Cooper answered without missing a beat, "Empathy. If you don't have empathy, you don't belong in the service industry."

I nearly fell off the couch. I felt I had been jolted awake by a proverbial bolt of lightning. Luckily I had my trusty ever-present "thought" pad and pencil at hand. I started scribbling so intensely that I forgot about the game. The biggest challenge, Cooper warned, is not just to say "we're there for the customers." It's easy to say those words, he explained. "It's another thing for everyone in the organization to live those words with constant sincerity." So, the biggest challenge, he concluded, is actually to be always there for the customer with your heart and soul. Without empathy of executives for employees and employees for customers, execution of Ritz-Carleton's mission would be impossible. He went on to say that by empathy he meant "listening and understanding so intently that you hear beyond the other person's words; you walk in his or her shoes; you truly are understanding and accepting of the other person's situation and feelings, and identifying with that person to the extent you feel like he/she does." Empathy, he continued, is "essential for serving the customer; it's essential for recognizing problems; it's essential for the development of solutions; it's essential for handling complaints and retaining customers, getting repeat business, and building a reputation."

There it was. My new dictionary word for Kenny. All I had to do was change a word here and there in Cooper's statement and he'd have it: "Empathy. We're there for the students....Empathy is essential for serving the student...If you don't have empathy, you don't belong in education."

Why should I have been surprised. Empathy is one of Stephen Covey's seven habits of successful people. He asserts that the absence of empathy, or listening without true understanding, is the root cause of all people problems. In the recent March 2nd issue of JAMA, Eric Larson, the Director of the Center of Health Studies, and his colleagues contend that physicians are more effective healers-and enjoy more professional satisfaction-when they have an empathy for their patients. Don't I know that! Empathy is known to be critical in all health and social service fields. Any top-notch salesman can tell you about empathy. It's been well-researched in organizational management. It is one of the main components of emotional intelligence listed by Daniel Goleman. In fact, Goleman calls empathy the foundation skill for all social competencies. All the research in all fields say anyone who has an empathetic demeanor has a more effective impact on others.

So why should so many educators who are in the communication business feel they're exempted? How many of us, as students and professionals and employees, no less than anyone else, have felt the occasional therapeutic, enveloping, warm, and supportive understanding of a friend or mentor or colleague or family member? How many of us been struck by what seems to be the more frequent pathological stinging, insensitive, cold, distant, gaze, unfeeling comment, gesture, or action? Yet, what I would declare to be one of the most potent teaching tools, is so often missing in the academia. That is especially true, pronouncements to the contrary, in those very uneducational large and huge herding classes where it is needed the most. It decreases and class size increases. Put it simply, academics are not expected, by themselves or others, to be empathetic caregivers. Most academics do not see themselves in a service capacity. Most academics don't think of academia as a people business.

Yet, the absence of empathy is so often the reason for distance and disconnection and miscommunication and misunderstanding between teacher and student, between and among colleagues, between teacher and administrator. It is so often so poorly understood by those who need it the most. It is so often met with cynicism. So many academics think, when they think about it, it's "touchy-feely." So many think it's not very important. It seems to them to be so subjectively unacademic, an emotion so out of place in the mythological objective, detached intellectual world of the Ivory Tower. So many of us academics are almost totally focused on being understood by the students while we so often do not make much of an effort to understand the students; so many of us are more interested in getting attention than in giving attention; so many of us are more interested in being on stage and maneuvering the spotlight onto ourselves than we are in stepping out of the spotlight and listening deeply to another person. In the classroom, when difficulties arise, its little wonder so many of us so often misread a student. We'll prance around with and flaunt our resumes, analytical skills, supposed objectivity, information banks, reasoning powers, titles, publications, positions, recognitions, grants, research projects, and authorities, and then wonder why students don't "get it" and why others can't see things their way.

It's amazing that so few of us, in this people-oriented, service industry we call education, can say to a student or each other, "I understand why you do what you do and why you feel the way you feel." Instead, the majority of academics lapse into negative stereotypes, fall back on depreciating preconceptions and presumptions while, unlike Anna, they don't make much of an effort to get to know each student in the flesh.

Empathy is an emotion. It is an attitude. It is a communication skill. Empathy is the material that breaks down barriers, builds bridges, and forges community. It's a social behavior. It affects how the professor thinks, feels, and acts towards him/herself, his/her job, the student and others. It's instrumental in whether a professor thinks teaching is a job or a mission, a matter of transmitting information or transforming a person. It's the fuel that keep the fires blazing and prevents burn out.

If I was to define empathy, like Cooper, I'd say it's simply hearing the beat of your heart and someone else's heart. It's a literacy that gives you the ability to read people. It means being a people person. It means having a real curiosity and a desire to know people. It means having a genuine interest in what others say and feel and do. It means, as Dotie said, truly listening, savoring the words of others, valuing what they say, and attending to the needs and wants of others. It means building respectful and reverent relationships. It's an awareness. It's an otherness. It's a transcendence. It means paying close attention to the people around you, to understand there are others in the classroom and on campus with you, and to serving them. It means being as highly sensitive as a Seti radio antennae capable and able to pick up faint signals of others' cues.

Empathy transforms relationships. It makes strangers less strange, isolated people less isolated, alone people less alone, lonely people less lonely, depreciated people less devalued.

I'll finish with this for now. I've learned that I must teach not with just with subject smarts and rational intelligence, not with just technological and pedagogical know-how, but with people smarts and emotional intelligence as well. You have to be not only in your head and discipline, but in your heart and soul as well--and in the heads and hearts of others.

So, thinking of Dotie, "empathy" is another word for My Dictionary of Good Teaching that I am going to send to Kenny! For like Simon Cooper, one of the most salient characteristics of a successful teacher is the ability to be empathic. It's the power in each of us that comes straight from our heart to connect with and enter another's heart.

		"Getting to know you. Getting to know all about 
		you. Getting to like you....Getting to know you, 
		getting to feel free and easy when I am with you
		....Getting to know what to say.... Haven't you 
		noticed, suddenly I'm bright and breezy? Because 
		of all the beautiful and new things I'm learning 
		about you"

Empathy: Neat word; neater attitude; neatest behavior. More later.

         Make it a good day.


         Louis Schmier      
         Department of History
         Valdosta State University
         Valdosta, GA  31698                 /~\        /\ /\
         912-333-5947              /^\      /     \    /  /~\  \   /~\__/\
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                        -_~    /  "If you want to climb mountains,   \ /^\
                         _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -    \____

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