Wanted: Empathy for Our Students

About Jackie Parrish

I am a retired teacher who taught in middle school for 30 years. I have certifications in elementary education, reading, and math. I have spent most of my career teaching math to 7th and 8th graders in an urban setting. I have also presented staff development within my school and within my district. Although I am now retired I am still passionate about teaching math in ways that engage all students.

For me, empathy has always been one of the most important character traits of a teacher. I brought empathy into my classroom from the day I started teaching. It had a lot to do with my childhood which was different from most in the time period in which I was born. My father died just before my third birthday. My mother and I lived with three different relatives/friends for about a year. At that time we were fortunate enough to get an apartment in a newly opened housing project. We survived on my father’s Social Security death benefits and surplus government food. My mother couldn’t work until I was in school because childcare didn’t exist.

I went to elementary school in a “project” school that only educated children from the housing project. Our teachers all had middle class backgrounds. It was amazing to see them educate all of these poor children with empathy. They made sure that we did all kinds of activities. We even performed in school plays that our parents attended. My education was no different than my cousins who lived with both parents in middle class neighborhoods.

From the day that I graduated from college I knew that I wanted to pay forward what had been given to me in elementary school. I chose to teach in a middle school in North Philadelphia not far from my own elementary school. Some of my students had backgrounds like mine, others did not. I never bothered to find out who was who because I had decided I would always treat all of my students with empathy.

Lately I have witnessed disturbing events happening in schools across the country which have led me to the conclusion that empathy seems to be missing in many schools. Let me give you a few examples:

There have been a few discussions on TER about free lunches. I am sometimes baffled by the comments of teachers who are against this program because they feel that parents should be providing lunch for their children. This is definitely not an empathetic attitude. I wonder if those saying this have ever considered that many families don’t have enough money to provide three meals a day. Do they know if these children are living in shelters? Have they ever read the research that states that children who eat breakfast and lunch do better in school? Where is the empathy for these children who have no control over what happens to them?

I had decided I would always treat all of my students with empathy Click To Tweet

Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bullying has increased lately in schools. In a few cases derogatory comments have even been made in classrooms by teachers. In other situations the name calling has occurred just outside the school by parents. Often in both of these situations these incidents make it into the local news and that stops them. However, when the slurs and bullying occur among students it is too often ignored by the adults in charge. This is where empathy for all of our students becomes essential.

Friends who are still in the classroom tell me that incidents like those I have mentioned are becoming more common. Children should not have to deal with these things when they are trying to learn. When a teacher shows empathy by telling students to stop teasing or name calling, it can create change in the classroom. I am not suggesting that it will change the world but it might just change some of our colleagues’ actions as well as those of our students. School should be a safe place for all children.

Does empathy for every student exist at your school?

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About the Author:

I am a retired teacher who taught in middle school for 30 years. I have certifications in elementary education, reading, and math. I have spent most of my career teaching math to 7th and 8th graders in an urban setting. I have also presented staff development within my school and within my district. Although I am now retired I am still passionate about teaching math in ways that engage all students.

One Comment

  1. Hazel March 9, 2017 at 11:34 pm - Reply

    A very interesting article. I’m a teacher at an international private high cost school in a third world country. Bullying is close to zero as they’re dealt with immediately. Race isn’t an issue and isn’t discussed because we’re all from different parts of the world. The word white or black is never heard. Colour white means snowy. Colour black means like coal. Surely there’s no one that colour.
    I’ve also enjoyed the main part . . . Empathy. We need to be on the look out. Some children are unloved and totally ignored by their parents. We’ve gotta be empathetic and fill in that gap.

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