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Dedicated to Teachers

Sara Ahmed, Christine Hertz, and Kristine Mraz on Empathy

EmpathyPodcastToday on the Heinemann Podcast, empathy…

In Sara Ahmed’s book Being the Change, she writes about how empathy has become a buzzword and its practice tends to get lost under high achievement goals.

And In their book Kids First from Day One, Christine Hertz and Kristi Mraz write:

"You might think that being an empathetic teacher is just part of the gig, but in the heat of the moment and the stress of the job, it is easy to want kids to see it from our point of view rather than to see it from theirs. Yes, empathy is a feel-good idea, but there’s more to it than that.”  

In today’s podcast we’ve brought together authors Sarah Ahmed, Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz, to discuss empathy not as something we have, but rather as an ongoing, daily practice that must be prioritized in our minds and actions. 

Our conversation begins with keeping empathy focused on the kids…

Below is a full transcript of our conversation:

Brett: So, Sara, where you start to write about empathy is almost a perfect companion to where Kristi and Christine start to write about empathy. Sara, you start off by saying how it's really written into mission statements, but then it's not really always acted upon and it just becomes a buzzword. And you both, really all three of you, really hit on this idea that empathy needs to stay focused on the kids. And that you have to do the work yourself. And it's really about perspective. And it's about point of view. So it seems as though people have a hard time sort of even defining or understanding clearly what empathy is when they're so busy making it a buzzword.

Sara: Yeah, no for sure. I actually… I marked those pages in our books too, and you guys have it on ... you guys have it on eight, and I have it on xxiii… But actually I underlined something in your book. I was just looking at some of the parallels. And you guys both wrote about ... It's the last sentence of your first paragraph in Under the Empathetic Teacher. And it just says, "Empathy's a feel good idea but there's more to it than that." Theresa Wiseman? Am I saying that correctly? Her Four Attributes of Empathy is what you guys go onto in the toolkit 'cause I started thinking about the differences and the parallels, too, with the age of kids in kindergarten, first, and second grade and then middle school and high school what those four attributes look like.

Christine: Theresa Wiseman has these four different attributes of ... it's almost like a ‘how to’ with empathy. And we thought about this when you're in one of those moments with a student in your class where you're trying to connect. And so first step that she has is to take their perspective. And so really try to imagine what it must feel like. And for younger students it often means physically getting down to where they are and being able to look into their eyes. And then asking them to say more about what's happening. And so instead of rushing to judgment, which is so easy to do as a teacher to think,  "No, the fact that  you're favorite pen just ran out of ink isn't a big deal, we've gotta get going, it's time for P.E.," to really honor the fact that for young children some seemingly small things are actually big in their world.

And for older students some things that we might dismiss because we've seen it a hundred times, like a fight with a best friend at recess or trying to negotiate a triad of friends. Again in their lives and in their world these are huge milestone moments. And so once you have used that judgment and not judged them rather. Then going to and recognizing the emotions which touches on a lot of The Whole Brain Child work by Daniel Siegel talking about making it more of a narrative to help them connect and work through those emotions. And then saying that this happens. Let's make a plan for moving forward and communicating and connecting. Those are four quick how to use empathy in the moment. I think we both started to use them more and more with young children.

Sara: I was looking at 'em and then I started wondering about my own writing and I was thinking, "God, am I contradicting this when I'm talking?" 'Cause I started thinking about my own middle school experiences and then what I used to do to kids by just being put yourself in their shoes almost without listening first; put yourself in their shoes; how would you feel? I have been quoted probably now saying you can't just ask kids to put themselves in people's shoes without all of this work and the process in the background. So, I can't just say put yourself in someone else's shoes. And now I'm asking even adults to without getting proximate; you can't do that, right? So putting yourself in someone else's shoes is getting one step closer to proximate, reading a book is getting one step closer to proximate. And so I love this framework that you have in here and even the language that you guys use ... it's helping me working in an elementary school now 'cause I've mostly been used to just working with middle school kids.

Kristi: Well, I just think that's such a good point that you're making, Sara, about the - it is so easy. And we actually had to do a little bit of - we've been kind of revising how we talk about empathy too because part of what I thought was empathy turns out to be conversational narcissism which we just learned about. And a shout out to your Tweet again; the one that made me sit back where you said people don't listen they just wait to talk. And I thought about that not - it fits really well with conversational narcissism which I used to masquerade as empathy for me because I'd be like "I totally know how you feel! Hear my story about it." And I was just in a situation with a teacher who's like "well the way that I use empathy with my kids is when I'm in your situation I do x, y, z." And that's such a go to for me too, but that's not actually empathy because you're missing that step ... that fancy word you're saying proximate.

Sara: Well, that came to me about that sort of listen but don't learn to talk is because middle school kids will just tell you basically right in the middle of your response to shut up if they're telling you something. I started reframing the way I was saying it 'cause I would do that. I would say, "Oh yeah I remember this with my friends in middle school." And one of my kids was literally like you know basically she said, "Can I finish? Let me just tell you the story." So then I started trying to reframe things like when you're coming to me with this do you want me to just listen to the whole thing and then ask you questions or find connection with you or give you my thoughts or do you want me to just be quiet and listen? Right? I'm giving them the ownership of the conversation there.

Christine: I think that if we could revise this section of the book right now, which unfortunately we can't, I think we might switch to say that we use the phrase "me too," which is loaded in a different way now too. But I think we would also talk about how you can connect and really make a person feel heard without using that conversational narcissism. And that feeling like this is a human experience can be developed by asking questions, and by asking them to say more about their own moment, and there's more to connection just than to saying "yeah I have the exact same thing going on my life."

Sara: You do talk about it though. You do say, your sort of getting proximate is I think you guys say something like getting down on their level. Or you do the whole body listening thing, right? Like getting down on their level and doing that. And that I think non-verbally signals to kids. I had to do a lot more getting down on one knee just in terms of height. And that actually ... true it changes everything as opposed to be towering over four or five girls.

Kristi: When you were talking about talking to middle schoolers and they were like "can I finish?" One of the things that I was asking myself. I wasn't just waiting to talk; I was listening and thinking about how sometimes it's like how do you know you're actually listening? In A Mindset for Learning we talk a little bit about these three conversational moves people make that are like you think you're having a conversation but you're actually not. It's from this book called How to Stay Sane. It's like you can interact by people in a ‘me – me’ way, which is like I like this so you'll like this. And then there's a me and then I control you so I want you to do this so I'm gonna do this because I think I can control your actions that way. And then there's ‘me ghost’ which is like I'm talking to you like someone I've met before; so like "Oh you're just like so and so."

Kristi: Sometimes I think that's where it's easy to get a little lost, right? We listen enough with kids to almost get the gist. You know like "Oh this sounds like a problem that so and so had so let me just try to talk you through the same way." Or like I really need you to get to lunch right now so I'm gonna say the thing that I'm gonna get you there as opposed to actually listening. And accepting when kids ... I just was talking about how a kid once was like "you're so annoying!" And I was so deeply offended that anyone could consider me annoying. And then when I was talking to someone about it they were like "Well were you annoying?" And I was like "kind of," but I don't know. I'm talking around the fact I think that actually listening you have to do a couple of things. You have to clear your mind of everyone who came before you and clear your mind of yourself so that when a kid's like "can I finish?" or "you're so annoying!" your empathy doesn't shut down 'cause you're in self-preservation.

Sara: Yeah, I know for sure. And then later we both talk about this; the hardest times this is is in your classroom. Things are moving, things are shuffling, you're trying to get this done, when things are heated or difficult. Currently everyday, if you watch the news, things are heated and difficult. Or when you're talking about with kids but then when it transfers out of the classroom we're asking kids to use these strategies as they go out the door. Then where does that toolkit of empathy go? So if things are heated in conversation or there's controversy in whatever media we're reading or listening to I guess with kids then whatever we're modeling for them is hopefully the things that they're taking out. Right? So like checking their bias, like the kid who told you you were annoying, like your very kind friend saying "well, were you?" right because they're asking you to pause and reflect on that, asking questions, and actually admitting you don't know, and willing to step up to this learning stance as opposed to being like "oh yeah I know."

I've been paying attention to this. It is in our vision statements and mission statements. And it's on all these banners on colorful character posters all over school, but that's not necessarily the message that kids are getting form us as adults.

Brett: Well, and Sara, you actually juxtaposed that with a 2014 study where it said 80% of students ranked achievement and happiness over concern for others. And I thought that was an interesting juxtaposition because while you're saying putting the mission statements it's not making it's way to the kids.

Sara: That was Harvard Graduate School of Ed. And they did that Making Caring Common Project. The study was something like the children we were meant to raise or meant to raise or something. And it was about the real messages that adults are sending so it was like ten thousand kids across every type of school. They ranked achieving over happiness and they also rank hard work over fairness, right? So the irony is, like care and fairness and empathy and compassion are written all over these things that we have surrounding these kids, but they're getting a mixed message 'cause that's not what we're living 'cause what's driving our days? Scores and levels and data and awards and rankings and grades and this time of year especially we're thinking about all of that admissions. So why is a kid gonna respond on a survey like that like "Oh God, yeah, I really do value caring over others and happiness, but meanwhile I have to get into this school with this number and I'm at this level and I'm a red or I'm a blue or I'm a 18. I'm not a nice kid." People - we don't always talk about kids that way.

Brett: I'm absolutely fascinated by this conversational narcissism and a little scared that I've probably done it a lot myself, so I kind of wanna come back to it just a little bit and just wonder, Sara, you mention specifically about being busy and, Christi, you mention trying to get kids out the door at hour and recognizing it. So, how do we stop in the moment - or can we - to recognize we're being conversationally narcissistic or not recognizing the fact that we should be more empathetic in this moment and also be modeling that empathy and also be teaching that empathy. How do we monitor that in ourselves?

Kristi: Essentially conversational narcissism shifts the focus of the conversation back on the person. So the way it goes is like "I'm having a really bad day... Oh, I'm sorry so am I." Or like "Really! Ugh! Me too!" I make that move in texts all the time where I'm like "You're having a bad day. I'm gonna tell you about my bad day so you don't feel as bad about your bad day." One of the examples was "My shoes are killing me." And the other person being like "Oh God, I know me too. My shoes are like the worst." Do you know that move we make in conversations? And the idea is that you don't move away you support whatever they say. But what's weird is when someone's like "oh my shoes hurt" I don't know why it feels so weird to be like "Oh, I'm so sorry. Tell me about why." Like what could you do to make it better?

Sara: I know like we wanna one up their foot pain or something.

Kristi: Or by saying "Oh my gosh me too." That's like "Oh we all have hurt feet."

Sara: I don't know. I don't know why it feels like that. Christine, any thoughts about?

Christine: I think that it's probably rooted in a place of wanting to connect and wanting to say "I know how you feel. You're not alone in this. This is part of the human experience. I've been there too." So I don't think that it's necessarily rooted in a bad place, but I just think that it's a bad pattern and a bad habit. And I agree that I have definitely been this person and this was a huge eyeopener when I read it. But Kristi wrote a really great blog post about what this looks like in the classroom and not just in the language we use but also in the broader sense of empathy when we're thinking about how we make plans and how we respond when a child says I need more time or what kind of responsive curriculum we're using. So I think that it's really easy to constantly be thinking that we're doing the right thing by trying to connect and trying to be supportive and do all these things. But in the end it sometimes is just the shift response doesn't make the person feel like they've been heard as much as a more supportive response.

Sara: I'm sorry. I'm writing everything that Christine's saying.

Christine: There's also ... it seems like there's a book that we should read called We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter by Celeste Headlee that seems like it would be an interesting thing to dive more into as well.

Sara: That's a trend in literature now ... the we need to talk. The Difficult Conversations one is now in it's tenth or something eleventh print. There's one called Crucial Conversations. It's all over 'cause none of us know how to have conversations…

Kristi: I feel like that's what ... Sara just to give another shot out to your book. That's why your book is so helpful. We all think that we're showing empathy when we're saying I hear you; that alone. It's like surface. I heard them, therefore I demonstrate empathy, but how do you actually understand where someone's coming ... ? I think that's like when you're reading one of the things kids have to start doing as texts get harder it says "so and so's walking down the street" you can't picture your own street. You have to picture the street of the character. And that's a really big jump for some kids 'cause you'll be like what does that street look like to you? And they describe the street they live on as opposed to the street in the story. And I think that's people have empathy on their street. I think what your book does is helps you be like there's other streets. Here's how to see them.

Brett: Sara, this seems like a really good time to reintroduce the concept you wrote about about social comprehension. This feels like a good way to connect that.

Sara: When Kristi's talking about the reading I'm thinking about empathy as a process and not a product. And so when I was writing about this idea about social comprehension I was like okay so here we are ingrained in this learning and studying and teaching of all these reading comprehension strategies. Kids are constantly - we're asking them to make connections and synthesize and ask questions along the way. And so then there's these other pieces about when you're out in the world and like Kristi said, she talks about reading the world. When you're out there reading the world, this is a process too of comprehension strategies and skills. So they're just social comprehension strategies where I'm out and I'm observing my world. I'm looking at myself in this world and how that actually instructs and defines the way I see others and the way I respond to the world around me.

So again, I think I talk about this in the book or I said it in a podcast, but a lot of teachers, you'll hear people do this, "Oh I got this book 'cause empathy or I got this book for empathy," or things like that. And yes in a way the doors and windows and mirrors saying is absolutely so important for kids in addition to this process of empathy and getting proximate. Empathy is not this causation thing where you read a book and empathy spits out. You still have to go through all those processes that you do when you're reading a book like Kristi's talking about, right? So you're comprehending along the way. And I think the most important thing lies in the fact that you have to be a little bit vulnerable to ask questions. Yeah, a book that I just finished reading, The Girl from Aleppo, have any of you guys read that?

Christine: No, not yet.

Sara: It's about a teenage girl Nujeen who she's in a wheelchair because of a condition she was born with. And she has never left the house ever up to her teenage life. And she had to leave Aleppo. And that was the first time she left the house is to become a refugee and travel nine countries in months. And her sister is basically pushing her. But as much as you feel for refugees and you're reading this media and all this news about refugees and you're seeing the Tweets and you're seeing the images, I could not actually feel until I read her words writing her story, right? And that's why I think this whole own voices movement is so important. This was not a BBC reporter reporting on Nujeen. This was her writing her story about her travel and her experience as a refugee. I'm going off on a tangent about that, but I didn't feel proximate until I listened to her and read her. So that's where I'm at with social comprehension. Yes, I have my feelings and thoughts about refugees and immigration in the U.S. and other countries and the world, but I didn't get proximate until I got to read her story and hear her talk about her story.

Christine: That story brings up something that I read recently that I wanted to forget about and close the tab and not look at anymore. And that was that researchers have been studying social ostracization and what the physical, visceral effects are if you feel like you're not in a community like you don't have a sense of belonging. We're probably not the right ones to talk about all the neuroscience of empathy, but I find that fascinating as well with the fact that we're wired for connection and belonging and have mirror neurons. Anyway, one thing that they were talking about is that you're more likely to have empathy for your community, whether that's your classroom community that you've built or a broader community. And that was both reassuring that it's great that we're doing all this work to build community, but it was also terrifying that without a social toolkit or without this social comprehension instruction it leaves some big gaps for not having empathy for other people. And so I think really taking that head on and giving students tools and giving ourselves tools makes it even more important.

Sara: Yeah, I just wanna keep reminding myself that I have to look at it as a process like with kids, right? You're constantly working toward a sense of empathy. I don't know what it is like to be a refugee. I cannot put myself in her shoes. I just cannot do it, but I can through reading her words and in that process. It's not a product that I'm coming out with as a result of reading her book.

Kristi: I think talking about it as a process makes a lot of sense in terms of A you're never done with it but B you can never actually be empathetic towards everyone ever. But in knowing that it's a process you'll always strive towards it. It's just such a shift of mindset. I think that's also a forgiving way to look at it as well which is that because it's a process you're constantly refining and cycling back and striving towards it the same way that if a growth mindset is believing your skills can be developed is an empathy mindset the one that I believe the skill can constantly be developed.

Sara: Do you guys think that there is ever a time in someone's life where that ship has sailed? An age in life that can no longer go through that process, go on that journey?

Kristi: Well, I have to say this thing from How to Stay Sane. The author talks about how they've found that people who aren't used to hearing good news don't develop the neural pathways to process good news, which doesn't mean you can't. It just means you have to intentionally process good news out loud and often in order to learn how to do it repeatedly. It's like if I wanted to learn how to play the violin there has to be intentional practice. I would have to imagine that if empathy has its own set of neural pieces I think everyone could develop it, but you have to have the moment where you're like I'm working on developing this. And that's the part where I don't know if everyone's on board with that idea.

Brett: So something that Christine and Kristi you both write about in the toolkit that you have on empathy in the book, time is the very first thing in the toolkit. And that feels like a really important thing to focus on, how everything that you've all talked about, Sara, you mentioned that it can feel overwhelming in some cases if you're not careful. But small moves, big moves, things that take time, we have to be patient with ourselves. How important are these things in terms of how we approach it in terms of not jumping into it all at once or making it manageable?

Kristi: It seems odd to have to justify why we need empathy for each other, but I feel like that's the outgrowth of not having it. We think oh I can teach kids to have this thing that I'm not practicing, but the implicit messages you're sending all the time about cutting up a kid's story or having the answer before or telling a kid the thing they're worried about they shouldn't be worried about. All those little moves we make from a good place of trying to be like I'm trying to make the day run. I'm trying to help this kid is sending those dual messages. So I think just waking up and having your thesis statement today I will work on my process of empathy and I'm gonna reflect on the moments at the end of the day. It has to be prioritized in our mind for it to also glean into our actions.

Sara: Well and you guys do that. And I was actually having a coaching conversation with a teacher at school last week. And I opened up to your schedules that you have of schedule examples in there. And I basically said look at the empathy for the kids in this schedule. Understanding of the kids feelings and perspectives throughout the day, you guys talk about it all the time. That kids should be moving all the time, how we should create the space for them. But even in your schedule where's not this human story but there is a human story that lives through that every single day, right? There's 28 of them or 35 of them or 60 if you're in certain districts in our state or in our country. And so I think it's more but I don't know if this what you were talking about but creating time yes but then your time, your whole day with kids is that responsiveness to that process of empathy with the kids 'cause you're actually creating time through your structured and unstructured time with them to have those moments.

I've been doing a little bit more thinking, Christine, you've brought up the neuroscience behind it and being more empathetic towards people in your community which is true. We often respond positively to people in our community, and for a lot of folks that means people that look only like you. And so that's why I talk a little bit about echo chambers 'cause my community at school now is sort of globally international diverse community by numbers. You have to think about actually what empathy looks like. So I'm in this space right now. Not everyone needs to be, but I am. And when I'm looking at empathy cross-culturally there's this journal Cross-Cultural Psychology that did a study on empathy across 63 countries. It was fascinating to me 'cause they talked about the fact that empathy relies on collectivism and agreeableness and how conscientious the society is and personal self-esteem and then the pro-social behaviors of that country meaning volunteering and donations.

I can't remember when the study was from. It was from a few years ago, but the number one country on that list was Ecuador. And I was like I wanna go to Ecuador. I wanna see what they're doing in Ecuador. The reason I'm bringing it up is 'cause we had International Women's Day celebrated at school not too long ago and the girls were out there rockin' their stickers and their tee shirts. The guys are too and a couple of the boys were talking to my soccer players. And the girls came running up to me during lunch and they were like "Oh, Miss Sara, the boys keep asking like why we have International Women's Day and when's boys' international day and stuff like that?" And you kind wanna quip like "Well because everyday is guys' day." You know? And things like that when kids come up to you if you're feeling that snarky about it, but you almost wanna catch the kids in that act of noticing and observing.

And helping to take that question and those thoughts to reframe their questions, like taking time in your class to do that. That's a conversation on the periphery that you can take back into your classroom and maybe reframe it from "When is International Boys' Day or International Men's Day?" to "Why is there even a need for International Women's Day? Or Women's Month or Black History Month and like all of these things." That's where I stand with time I think you have to make the time for it especially when things like that pop up in your day.

Kristi: And in the early childhood setting one of the things that I think makes it a little bit easier is that the social studies curriculum is basically you and your family and your community. Especially when you watch kids at play and stuff, You hear those questions being played out as they're trying to negotiate who gets to drive the car. And a kid will be like "Well, dads drive, right?" Or like kids who are like "No, you have to have parents; you can't live with anyone but parents." I think even before time comes the soft landing position that I think your book helps people face a little bit better which is that the questions are gonna be difficult and it's gonna feel uncomfortable. It is the process of this child said something about how you have to have a dad in the family, right? Rather than just shushing or being like "No!" That's not how you develop empathy and I think the bigger work that comes out in some of your work Sara is it's a replicable process. When I encounter something that's new to me, I learn a way to respond to that that's with an open stance as opposed to a different bad stance.

Christine: We're talking about the process of empathy and Kristi and I have also been talking a little bit post-publication date about different types of empathy and it seems like it's a hard time to be in this world. And there are hard conversations. And we've learned more and more about there's emotional empathy where you're really feeling like you emotionally are feeling the same feelings. And I know that when you do that in a classroom of 20 or 30 or 60 students and it's just so physically draining day after day. And in, especially in our world as we are right now, and then we think about cognitive empathy which I think leads us to a lot of that dismissal and thinking about "well, okay, yeah I get it, but I'm not gonna really go there."

I conceptualize that feeling, but I can't proximate if I'm using that word correctly. And so then as a teacher I think a lot about trying to build some compassion empathy and so I can connect, I can venture down the emotional road a little bit but not completely be drawn in. Because I think that this is in the world of education and the world that we live in this process of building empathy and reflecting on your empathy is really important. But I think we also need to give ourselves and students tools for making it a long process and a sustainable process as well.


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Sara K. Ahmed is currently a literacy coach at NIST International School in Bangkok, Thailand. She has taught in urban, suburban, public, independent, and international schools, where her classrooms were designed to help students consider their own identities and see the humanity in others. Sara is coauthor with Harvey "Smokey" Daniels of Upstanders: How to Engage Middle School Hearts and Minds with Inquiry. She has served on the teacher leadership team for Facing History and Ourselves, an international organization devoted to developing critical thinking and empathy for others. You can find her on Twitter @SaraKAhmed



Christine Hertz is coauthor of the Heinemann titles Kids First from Day One and A Mindset for Learning. She finds great joy and challenge in helping all children grow as independent and engaged students. She is passionate about keeping play and creativity at the center of children's lives and curiosity and wonder at the heart of learning. Christine has taught in a wide variety of classrooms from preschool to fourth grade and as an adjunct instructor of education courses. She currently teaches in Worcester, Vermont. You can follow her on Twitter @christine_hertz or visit her web site at christinehertz.com

Kristine Mraz is coauthor—with Christine Hertz—of the new Kids First from Day One, which provides a practical blueprint for increasing the child-centeredness of your teaching practice. She and Christine previously teamed up for the bestselling A Mindset for Learning (coauthored with Christine Hertz), which provides practical and powerful strategies for cultivating optimism, flexibility, and empathy alongside traditional academic skills. Kristi teaches Kindergarten in the New York City Public schools. In addition to writing and teaching, she consults in schools across the country and as far away as Taiwan. She primarily supports teachers in early literacy, play, and inquiry based learning. You can follow all of her adventures on twitter @MrazKristine or on her blog kinderconfidential.wordpress.com

Topics: Christine Hertz, Empathy, Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Kristine Mraz, Sara Ahmed, Kids First From Day One, Being the Change, Sara Ahmed Podcasts, Sara K. Ahmed

Date Published: 05/31/18

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