Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Wed 3/23/2005 2:22 AM
Random Thought: Empathy Does So Complicate Things

As I was looking at photos of my grand-daughters during their recent visit to Hawaii and thinking of Friday when Susan and I begin a week of spoiling them, I got a ding of an incoming e-mail. It was from a professor at a western university. She accused me of complicating the classroom. I could only answer with a plea of guilty. Well, I’m really not guilty. It’s empathy, not me, that complicates what so many of us academics want to be so perfect and simple. Empathy takes issue with the academic culture we academics have created, perpetuate, and which has taken on a life of its own. I don't believe that there's any kind of virtue in giving a false picture of serenity or simplicity or even perfection of the classroom. To do otherwise would distort the classroom’s reality more than it already is. Unless it’s void of all human life, the classroom is not simple. It’s not static. It’s not pristine. It's not serene. And, it sure isn’t perfect. It’s messy. It’s dynamic. It’s complex. It’s complicated. It’s fraught with human imperfection. It’s as intellectually and ethically challenging as anything. Empathy demands we do something other than just stand up there and talk, test, and grade. It asks whether there is more to teaching and learning than transmitting, receiving, and testing information. It requires that we see students as a “gathering of sacred ‘ones.’” It requires us to learn to pay attention to each student, see each student differently and in a different light, learn to love each one of them, acquire a strong and focused kind of love. Yes, empathy does so complicate the classroom.

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: That classroom is not so neatly divided into two primary abstract categories, the single professor and a horde of students, as many would have us believe. If we accept a student, and ourselves, as fixed and categorized, already shaped, labeled, then we’ll do what we can to confirm this shallow, limited, and limiting presumption. But, if we see a student as a process of becoming, as living potential, then we’ll do what we can to confirm his or her potential. The truth is that students are human beings. They, each of them--not some indifferent, undifferentiating, theoretical, mechanical grouping--are the real stuff of the classroom. Without them, the classroom is a hollow, echoing, meaningless, darkened, empty box. With them, the classroom is a vibrant, sacred place lit up with promise and hope. The way to overcome artificial divisions, the distorting stereotypes, the false assumptions, and oversimplified presumptions is to find ways to welcome and embrace individuals unconditionally each day on a human level, listen to people, one at a time, who is not unlike us. Do that and you’ll blow the whole dividing “us and them” concept of professor and student to smithereens.

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: Empathy is not just a concept. It’s not just a feeling. It’s a concern for the moral development of each student, that is, a consideration for each student. It’s an experience, a way to go beyond your usual boundaries and explore a different way of being. It is a deep, intelligent, respectful exploration of what lies beneath the surface of appearance; it helps us maintain our balance in the constant tidal ebb and flow and swirling eddies of the classroom.

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: It requires that you care for each and every student each and every day. And, I find that inherent in it is the principle of caring, and it is much more powerful than most imagine. I was just reading Carl Rogers’ On Becoming a Person. In it he talks about the healing power of unconditional “positive regard from others” and “positive self-regard.” In fact, he said they were essential for striving for your potential. He said it feels incredibly good to be listened to and to be understood and to be respected and to be valued by someone who sees only the good in us. With acceptance by others comes acceptance of us by ourselves. Without it, most feel small and helpless, and few will strive to become all they can become much less thrive. We academics know that from personal experience. What makes us think we’re any different from students. So, what’s good for the professorial goose is certainly good for the student gander.

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: Rogers talked of “client centered” or “person centered.” He emphasized being fully present with the client, removing obstacles, and giving control to the client so that the client can move forward. I use the term “student centered.” I mean being fully present with each student, relinquishing control over the student so that the student can strive to become the person he or she is capable of becoming. You know up until 1991 I was asking the question “How can I teach this student.” Now I ask, “How can I provide a relationship which this student may use for his or her own growth.” To put it another way, I no longer am the “person who knows.” I am now there to facilitate a student’s growth, to become something of a companion, to offer warmth and safety for what can only be described as a fearful search by the student for who he or she can become.

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: When you have that true sense of otherness, when you step into a student’s heart, spirit, and mind, control is too heavy a load to bring along. You have to travel light with something of an exquisite risky, innocent, letting go “let’s see.” Empathy, then, requires that you free yourself up from addictive controlling feelings and manipulating behaviors

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: The classroom is like the ocean. Everything is in motion. Everything is in constant change. It is so easy to look its surface and be lulled into thinking you know and understand its depths. It’s so easy to think that we know students from the inside out. Then, we’re surprised or disappointed by a currents and whirlpools of emotion and action that appear. The truth is that we academics with all of our accolades don’t know enough to make judgments about ourselves much less others. We academics are so educated about some things and so uneducated about other things. We are so informed. And yet, we can be so uninformed and misinformed. Because a student is silent doesn’t mean he or she is unprepared or unable or even incompetent. So, we have to ask questions, slow down, mindfully listen, deeply see, and avoid snap judgments. We have to be strong enough to let things flow.

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: It’s not the students that cause problems for us academics. It’s our thinking about students that are the cause of our difficulties. And, those thoughts are too often unexamined thoughts. The acceptance of and attachment to and investment in those thoughts are the problem. Too often we do not project ourselves as trustworthy, liking, respectful, valuing, So, maybe before we struggle to understand students, we have to first have to struggle understand ourselves.

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: It requires a strong sense of self, especially that you recognize the impact of your own feelings on your actions. It demands that you have to motivate and inspire yourself, understand yourself, and manage yourself. Between an occurring circumstance and your response to that circumstance is a space for self-control. In other words, we academics have to handle our own emotions, attitudes, and actions so that we can encourage and support rather than interfere and hinder.

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: When we say “students should…...” aren’t we really saying “I am upset with the students because they don’t…….?” So many of us define ourselves by our difficulties with students rather than as someone who is experiencing some difficult challenges and creating value out of such situations. What matters most is not what is sent to us and what we find in the classroom. What truly matters, and what speaks volumes about our character, is what we do with it all. The more we accept a student and like him or her, the more we respect him or her, the more we value him or her, the more we prize a student, the more he or she feels warm and safe, the more we are willing to do what will help him or her grow. By this, I mean accepting a student no matter what, no matter how much you’ve been burnt by another student in the past and no matter how negative and rejecting a student may be. It is what Martin Buber called “confirming the other.”

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: I love that complexity. I think so many academics get frustrated, tense, stressed, disappointed, depressed, resigned, angry, or upset when their thinking in stereotypical, simplified, distorting terms argues with the reality of the classroom’s complexity. They get themselves into a “students should” tizzy. Wanting that classroom to be other than it is, playing what I call “the perfection game,” wanting things and people to go their way, is hopeless. Again, it’s not perfect; it’s not neat; it’s not simple. Think and act as if it is all you want won’t make it happen, and you’ll lose the game all the time. Those joyless feelings will boomerang back to scorch your heart. All the stress that you feel is caused by arguing with what is. It’s like trying to spend your entire career trying to teach a dog to moo. It called burn out.

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: No one can sharply divide and separate the academic from the moral and ethical, the academic and public from the private and personal, the outside from the inside. No one, neither student nor teacher, can leave their “trash” at the classroom’s door. Wherever anyone goes, as Jon-Kabbat Zinn says, there he or she is. Empathy is not a teaching technique. It’s not a formal practice to be used only in the classroom. It can’t be separated from the other aspects of our daily lives. Empathy is a state of naturalness and freedom which need what might be called a “natural heart and mind.”

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: You can’t stay at a distance, avoiding being vulnerable, and be involved at the same time. There is no weakness in being vulnerable, only authenticity. The more genuine you are with a student, the more helpful you can be. This means you have to be aware of your own feelings rather than presenting an outward façade and hiding another attitude. It’s extremely important to be real. Maybe we have to take what’s called the “exquisite risk” in order to experience true teaching and learning rather than merely managing the classroom.

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: None of these students is a “mini us.” There is such a strong tendency to write off large parts of the student body as “poor,” “mediocre,” or even “losers” because they’re not what we now imagine they should be and how we were. Those who do that are corrupted by knowledge, title, experience, authority, and an often selected memory. A lesser grade doesn’t translate into a lesser person; a failed test doesn’t mean the student is a failure; a screwed up assignment doesn’t mean there is a screw-up before us. We should be insistent upon the dignity of the younger, inexperienced, and uninformed. We must be committed. We must pay attention must be paid to and assistance must be given to such persons.

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: You find that the playing field is never level. Students come to us traveling different roads, having different experiences, entering through different doors, carrying different types and amount of baggage. We sacrifice empathy, we close ourselves off, when we are upset, angry, anxious, disappointed with students. These negative emotions interfere with out capacity to understand and offer whatever support and encouragement is needed.

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: And, we academics are one of the added complications. Our thoughts in and of themselves are harmless. It’s when we believe them and think they’re real that we make them powerful. Our attitude, feelings, beliefs, theories, and actions--our story--spring from our thoughts. So, when the Native American medicine men ask you to tell your story, they are really asking if your thoughts are truly true and who would you be without your thoughts?

Empathy does so complicate the classroom: It you have empathy on purpose, you have energy, purpose, direction. You can maintain your balance in the ebb and flow of tidal forces. I have found that empathy is a ticket to flying to a higher consciousness of deeper otherness. You know, there are so many access codes to so many of the wild possibilities. When you accept that reality, when you teach deeply and mindfully, your teaching becomes fluid, balanced, natural, kind, encouraging, supporting, hopeful, faithful, loving, dynamic, and fearless. You will magnify the “good stuff” a lot more than the “bad stuff” and be a lot happier and more satisfied and more fulfilled. You will have the most noble and uplifting experiences in life. You reveal people barely known, people who live stifled beneath the stereotypical language, let them break the surface, and breathe their unique potential. Then, you’ll dance from one exciting moment to the next.

         Make it a good day.


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

Return to The Complete Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier
Return to the Random Thoughts of Louis Schmier