Teaching empathy through letters

The ability of some children to appear truly devoid of empathy astounds me. Fortunately, with a few choice questions, this illusion generally fades and their compassion and understanding rises to the surface. I’ve found that students can quickly go from hurling abuse to understanding and apologetic tears, if only they are asked the right questions.

‘I don’t have to listen to what they think, they are stupid!’ … ‘Who cares about the ‘dumb’ kids?’ … ‘Why should I care about them?’ … ‘I’m never going to understand, they are too weird!’

These are just some of the comments students have made in conversation with me over the past few weeks. In so many interactions, I have noticed a distinct lack of understanding, compassion or care being given from one student to another.

Empathy can be defined as ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. This ability seems fundamental to good relationships and a strong community, yet is often sparse in schools. From the lack of a reciprocated ‘hello’ or ‘how was your weekend’, to intense bullying, the absence of empathy concerns me.

A few years ago someone told me that if I felt like something was wrong, I should do something about it. I decided I needed to at the very least help the students in my classes to build their empathy. The challenge for me was how to incorporate this into my history and business curriculum.

While thinking about this, I had also noticed that a few teachers at the school were going through a tough time. This gave me an idea.

I decided I would get all of my students to write a thank you letter to one teacher.

For my Year 9 class, I created a lesson focused on World War I and the letters that Australian soldiers sent home to their loved ones. For Year 10, their lesson was on how to build customer relationships and understand their clients. Each student was then given a piece of paper and asked to write a one page letter to a teacher.

Many were confused, unsure of why they were being asked to write to a teacher. It was as if teachers were strange monsters to them. ‘But why do we have to write to a teacher!?’ some asked. However, after some coaxing they were on board.

I asked students to spend time thinking about how their teachers feel. What might they be thinking about at this time of year? What have they done for the students? What would they want to hear about? We did a brief ‘think-pair-share’ then students got writing.

I gave each student an envelope to seal then dropped the letters off to teachers. The smiles, tears and laughter spoke for themselves.

Students in the following week remarked at how thankful teachers were, how they really appreciated their letters. They were surprised at how happy it made them.

I was then able to have a discussion with the students about empathy, giving thanks and how purposeful action can help build relationships. It was a great way to discuss this with the students in a way they really understood and felt connected to.

At the end of our discussion, I shared with the students two of my favourite quotes on empathy and asked them to write a short reflection. I was impressed with the shift in many of their attitudes and their understanding of empathy.

Next term I hope to trial this again in a few different formats that other teachers have suggested to me for my Year 7 students. If you have any advice, please let me know!

If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far. – Daniel Goleman 

Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place. – Daniel Pink


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