Teaching empathy to America’s future teachers

By Kathleen Ruen

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As the new acting director of a graduate program in early childhood and elementary education at one of the most liberal colleges in the U.S., I often think about the future of academia and of teacher preparation. The next four years will be a test for higher education across the nation and may be especially challenging for institutions in New York state, where we will be balancing the demands and mandates of a Democratic -dominated state government and a Republican administration in the White House. Sarah Lawrence’s Art of Teaching graduate education program will need to adapt to this change while not losing sight of our mission to keep children at the heart of our practice.

Educators in academic settings like Sarah Lawrence need to promote academic freedom, providing multiple points of view to our students. Bringing multiple perspectives to areas of study in our classrooms is important not only so students can develop a wider view but so they are better equipped to use that philosophy in their own classrooms

This fall we studied the presidential election in my curriculum course, and this work helped my students understand the importance of bringing multiple points of view to any study. Although as a group we generally agreed politically, I challenged my students to empathize with voters on the other side. When my students presented their election curriculum plans, based on the New York state social studies standards, I was impressed with the way they were able to translate the content into developmentally appropriate ways.

Shaping young educators who will bring empathy and objectivity to the classroom sometimes requires institutions to bring in outside voices and facilitators to help us in this work. On Jan 19 through 21, administrators, teachers and our current students will participate in an annual two-and -a-half-day training with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond called “Undoing, Racism.” Through dialogue, reflection, role-playing, strategic planning and presentations, this rigorous program is designed to help participants see how institutions have been affected by racism and how we willingly and unwillingly participate in these systems.

Sarah Lawrence is the only college that we are aware of that requires its education students to participate in this intensive workshop. Sarah Lawrence believes strongly that educators need to be aware of the messages they impart to students in the classroom and how those messages may be shaped by personal experiences. For these same reasons, students in Sarah Lawrence’s human genetics and health advocacy programs are also required to participate since these areas of study can be ethically challenging. The workshop, which will be held at Sarah Lawrence’s campus in Yonkers, is open to the public as well.

While the Undoing Racism workshop generally seeks to promote better understanding of what it is like to be a person of color in America, its underlying message is in promoting empathy. What is it like to walk in another’s shoes?

This empathy in an important ingredient in shaping students who are true to their values but understand the need to promote open dialogue in the classroom. I hope my academic peers in Westchester County will be able to continue this necessary work of opening up our students’ minds and preparing them to become valued and productive members of our present and future society.

Kathleen Ruen is acting director of the Art of Teaching program at Sarah Lawrence College. She can be reached at 914395-2696 or kruen@slc.edu.

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