Right now I am knee deep in learning about the Teachscape classroom observation system. By the end of my training to evaluate teaching staff under the Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness System, I will have watched over 100 videos of classroom instruction. Without actually having applied this observational tool in the classroom, I have found lots of positive aspects about it. There is a common understanding of what good instruction looks like. All instructional leaders will be in their school’s classrooms on a more regular basis. Authentic pieces of evidence of progress toward professional learning outcomes will be expected in this process. Charlotte Danielson’s framework for instruction is well represented within Teachscape, such as I can see so far.
After reflecting on this training, along with my fourteen years as a teacher and administrator, I believe empathy is the most critical skill for educators to be highly effective in teaching children.
Some educators refer to the skill of “perspective-taking”. Ellen Gillinsky, author of Minds in the Making, defines perspective-taking as “figuring out what others think and feel” (http://mindinthemaking.org/article/category/perspective_taking/). Peter Johnston, in his book Opening Minds (Stenhouse, 2012), uses the term “social imagination” to describe how a person can “mind read” by closely observing a learner’s language and actions (76). I like both explanations, and the core of each of these concepts is empathy.
I define empathy from an educator’s point of view as the ability to inhabit a student’s situation, thoughts, and feelings. This skill, to mentally place ourselves within a student’s circumstance, can bear many opportunities for responsive instruction. Empathy gives a teacher pause when a student is not working as they should (“Is he sick? Hungry? Upset?”). Empathy allows us to prepare our lessons based not on what we want to cover, but on what each individual needs. Empathy clues us in to what our students’ parents are really saying and feeling, and not necessarily on what we hear and see. Empathy allows educators to teach with confidence, because they know their words and actions will have a profound impact on students’ lives. I believe empathy is the foundation for all that is possible within instruction.