As I was leaving the band room one day, I heard a booming teenage voice. When I got out the door, the hallway was lined with people watching a large young adult cursing and throwing his body around. The shop teacher and another teacher on duty stood at the end of the hall in case something went seriously wrong. A hundred pairs of wide Grade 10 eyes watched this boy swearing and marching toward the day, shocked and scared for what might happened next.
He looked my way as he passed and, regrettably, I said something like “Wow, such model behaviour.” I can’t remember what I said, but I immediately knew that I shouldn’t be bringing gas to the bonfire, which of course, I did.
He drew both of his middle fingers toward me and exclaimed—and this is true—“F- – – you, you band b- – – -!” Really, that’s what he said. Then he stormed out of the school and I never saw him again.
When I recounted the story to my wife, the first thing she said was: “I wonder what made him do that.” I was hoping she’d show a little more concern for me, but the fact that her first instinct was one of empathy toward the teen shows how wonderful of a person she really is. Her first response to many situations like this is one of radical empathy.
I wonder what might happen if we approached teaching this way. What if we took a long look at what was really happening with our kids who act out, our kids who are perpetually late, or our kids who seem apathetic and resigned to participating in school. What we’ll find is that there is, almost always, more going on than we know.
Maybe they are starved for attention, that’s why they act out.
Maybe they have to get themselves out of bed and make their own meals, that’s what why they’re always late.
Maybe they feel like no one cares about them or that they aren’t important, that’s why they’re apathetic.
In his book “Pathways,” Joseph Alsobrook recounts a time where he invites one of his outspoken students to a morning meeting before school one day. Alsobrook sat down with the student and they started talking, first about their morning, then about sports and other interests that the student had. The student was waiting for some kind of punishment, but it never came. Instead, he got to talk about things that interested him to an adult that was listening and empathizing.
Instead of disciplining that child over and over again, Alsobrook simply listened to him. What if we took the approach of simply asking our students questions about their lives and really listened to them?
As I get older, I find that I have to learn more about the detailed parts of my students’ interests: Social media, Pokemon Go, video games, sports, etc. However, underneath those surface parts of their lives are more timeless and eternal desires: Connection, feeling heard, validation, acknowledgment, attention, being accountable, feeling like they have value, and many others. They are the things that we all need and that humanity will never stop pursuing. If a student is acting out, it may be because they’re missing a core value of their life and maybe we can be the ones to give it to them.
Model radical empathy, my teachers!