“You never truly know someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes” is an American adage of unknown origin. It has been replicated and massaged into different expressions throughout the years, but its message remains the same: take a good long look at the situation from where the other person is standing before you judge his or her reaction. The adage is commonly used to express a skill called empathy. More precisely, empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, even if the feelings are not explicitly communicated. In our roles as tutors and coaches to our students, empathy is one of the most important skills a corps member can have because students are not always willing or able to communicate their feelings.
Empathy helps us develop a relationship with our students that is built on mutual respect and understanding. In the tutoring space, empathy allows us to see the class work from the student’s perspective and determine if they are disengaged because they are frustrated or because they are bored. In the coaching space, empathy is helpful in dealing with the sensitive discussion of poverty and resources. It is our goal as corps members to be solution oriented when dealing with our students’ attendance and behavior issues. That, combined with our ability to understand, or if need be voice the issue from the student’s perspective, helps the students feel secure, unashamed, and supported.
Empathy is a handy tool for any corps member to have, but the modeling of that empathy provides an additional benefit that is easy to overlook. In showing our students what empathy looks like, we familiarize them with discussing feelings and perspectives, and how those factors play a role in how we and other people make decisions. There is some debate as to whether or to what extent, empathy can be taught. It is accepted, however, that empathy is the culmination of many other social skills including: self-awareness, nonjudgmental positive regard for others, listening skills, and self-confidence. As a result, any environment that works to support these fundamental social skills also supports the development of empathy. The environment of empathy that corps members strive to create with their students is a subtle and indirect instruction in the basics of empathy.
Finally, empathy is not only important for our students. It is also important for us as corps members. Benjamin Franklin said “justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” For me and many other corps members who have not faced the same struggles as our students, it is important that we first use empathy to understand the outrage of the affected. During our ten months of service we gain a glimpse into our students’ lives, and we walk several miles in their shoes. If we allow ourselves to be, we are affected vicariously by their struggles with poverty and inequality in education. When our ten months are over, can we truly say the work is finished? How many of us will be able to walk away, unaffected, as if none of this made an impact on us? I doubt any of us will. Empathy has the ability to transcend the gap between the affected and the unaffected. Without that gap, there is nothing to stop us from reaching out to another person to offer whatever we can.
By Kathleen Griffin