Monday, October 13, 2014

Empathy & Trust

The need for trust and empathy is something I understand on a very personal level. Last year, my whole world shifted after I came to terms with my sexuality - realizing that I am gay and saying the words aloud was quite a journey (a challenging one at times). My entire life changed (as did the lives of those most important people in my world) and I didn't want anyone at school to know because I didn't want them to think I was different or that my work would suffer. Of course, everyone around me knew something was going and without me even asking for it, they all showed me a tremendous amount of empathy and they offered me all the trust I needed to eventually share my journey with them. In the end, my ability to successfully navigate the year was built on the trust and empathy that permeated our community. 

Why do I share this very personal experience with the world? Well, after almost 20 years in the world of public education it took a personal journey to understand that we don't need much to create positive learning environments for children; we don't need much to enact sustainable educational reform; and we don't need much to create an educational community where all members feel valued and important. After 20 years of working with children, educators and families, coupled with my own coming out experience, I have come to believe that if we take a little empathy and sprinkle it upon some trust, chances are we are well on our way to success. Success in life; success in work; but most importantly, success within any educational community. This is what we need most in our schools today... empathy and trust. I used to think that my kids needed my sympathy because they led lives that were much more difficult than my own; I also used to think that the only way we would have a productive year in our classroom is if my students respected me. Yes, sympathy can be useful at times and yes, respect goes a long way, but, without empathy and trust, there will be no success. 

There needs to be trust between educators and families; there needs to be trust between students and teachers; there needs to be trust between administration and staff; there needs to be trust between the community and the faculty; there needs to be trust between the principal and the children; there needs to be trust everywhere within an educational community if we are to meet with any success, implement any innovative changes and create contexts where taking a risk with one's learning (adult or child) is the norm and not the exception. We need to trust that everyone within the organization is dedicated to doing what is in the best interest of children and that we will each carry our "load" towards that goal. We need to trust that when we make decisions that are in the best interest of children, even when they are not easy decisions, we are doing what is right. We need trust in our schools if we are to be successful in a sustainable and meaningful way. It doesn't matter how many test prep workbooks we buy or how many devices we get into the hands of our students or how affluent our community is because without trust, there will be limited success, growth and evolution. It is becoming clearer to me each day that many of the efforts in the world of education reform fail because of the lack of trust. We need trust in our schools!

Of course, trust doesn't come with the clap of your hands or the mere wanting of it. Building trust takes a lot of work. Trust comes from being transparent; trust comes from being collaborative; trust comes from communicating expectations, hopes and vision; trust comes from seeing feedback as an opportunity to enhance your craft (not get defensive); trust comes from conversations about our practice; trust comes from working together to do what is in the best interest of a child; trust comes from the relationships that we foster and nurture in our schools. Trust takes time and effort!  

Trust is just half of the equation though... because without empathy, trust alone will not lead to as much success. We need to show everyone in our schools and communities empathy, even when we think they don't deserve it or when it is incredibly difficult to find the empathy within ourselves. I am not talking about sympathy here - people don't generally benefit from pity but they can benefit from the empathy we exhibit when we try and walk in their shoes. 

The tough thing about empathy is that we don't often know when those around us actually need it most because they are hesitant to share. Sometimes they are embarrassed for others to know they are going through something; sometimes they are unable to verbalize it; sometimes they don't want people to view them as weak or different; and other times they just don't want to talk about it. 

The emotionally disturbed child who tells you she hates you and throws a book across the classroom needs empathy; the little homeless boy who who cries all day and is living in a single room at the local motel with his two siblings and parent needs empathy; the second grader who lost her parent to a terrible illness needs empathy; the new student who just came to the country and doesn't speak a word of English needs empathy; the socially impaired child who is going home to a parent who can't understand him needs empathy; the staff member who is going through a divorce and struggles to figure out child care each day needs empathy; and the list goes on and on for those who need empathy from someone they can trust. 


Whatever the situation or variables, figuring out when someone needs empathy or a trust-worthy supporter can be tough so let's play it safe in our schools and show everyone a little empathy and work diligently to create an environment where trust is part of the foundation. A few months ago I was struggling with coming to terms with my sexuality and successfully navigating an unfamiliar landscape. In the end, if it wasn't for the empathy and trustworthiness of those around me, I may not have been as comfortable as I was in saying, "My name is Tony and I am gay." 

From my perspective, if we take a little empathy and sprinkle it upon some trust, chances are we are well on our way to success within our schools.     

17 comments:

  1. Tony,
    I am so proud to call you friend. A little more empathy all around will go a very long way. I appreciate the difference you make between sympathy and empathy. It's an important distinction and you've done it incredibly well with this post.
    All the best,
    L

    ReplyDelete
  2. Made me cry! Tony Tone, I am so incredibly proud of you. What a year we've had! Way to be true to your heart and in turn, true to all you have to offer. Humbled to be a part of ur world!

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is why you always be one of my mentors and trusted friends!! Your honesty and trust always amaze me, but your ability to empathize is what sets you apart from so many. Thank you for being a trusted friend and for being that person I can consistently look up to as a role model. Once again, the time until we meet again is too long, but I anxiously await your next vox, tweet or google hangout. Thanks for sharing brother!!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Erring on the side of empathy and trust sounds very good to me. Thanks for putting kids first in all you do, and for being such a good friend and colleague. Inspired by your work daily.

    Brad

    ReplyDelete
  5. I love you friend and I love that you wrote about this. We as educators need to tell our stories and I love that you are telling yours. You are so right about trust and empathy.
    Thank you for trusting all of us enough to tell your story.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Tony,
    Your courage and selflessness makes you the amazing leader you continue to be. You are a role model for me, and for so many others, striving to create safe and productive learning spaces for kids. And now to be able to live trust and empathy, well, that, my friend, is the very best lesson you can teach others. Continue to inspire and lead with your huge heart, and stand tall knowing we are right there beside you.

    All the best,

    Dennis

    ReplyDelete
  7. So proud to call you my friend, Tony. Love you to the moon and back.

    Curt

    ReplyDelete
  8. Bravo sir! Bravo! ....and thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  9. You are truly inspiring in many ways. As an aspiring educator, I love your perspective that school should be a meaningful, effective, caring and nourishing environment for children. In a time where the focus is increasingly steered towards a challenging new set of standards, standardized tests and teacher evaluations, it is refreshing to see a school leader who understands that a child's experience in school goes beyond just learning new concepts in math and ELA. As a parent, I wish for more for my own children's experience and I hope to bring that same philosophy as a classroom teacher.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Tony, thank you for another post where you share your personal struggles and triumphs and use them to show how our humanity makes a difference in the classroom and at school. A brave post. I loved it! (And welcome to the "community" ;))

    ReplyDelete
  11. Wait...you're gay? When did that happen? Ha! You're the best, man. Happy and honored to call you a friend. Loved the post...inspiring and real...just like you. Great work as always. Now...stop writing blog posts and go finish our second book.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thank you for your words, you inspire and motivate me!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Thank you for your words, you inspire and motivate me!

    ReplyDelete
  14. That's what I believe in and stand for too! On the same page, Man and it makes all the difference! Well done!!

    ReplyDelete
  15. Very well written. There is a big difference between sympathy and empathy and you have explained it very well.
    Very inspiring!

    ReplyDelete
  16. It is so often our own journey that provides us with the strength of in-sight, to feel more deeply what others feel. You are on this path my friend. Proud to call you colleague and friend.

    ReplyDelete
  17. I am a fellow educator who follows you on Twitter. I am a retired principal but I continue to work as a casual administrator within the board where I worked for 30 years. Your tweets brighten my Twitter feed because they are always positive and very student-centred. I've never read your blog before today but the title of this entry caught my eye because I had a conversation with a teacher yesterday about feeling empathy for the students who come to her school (from a local shelter) while still believing in their ability to learn and even excel. You touched my heart when you talked about your own journey. I am the mother of three amazing young adults. Two of my children, a son and daughter, are gay and I take every opportunity to shout my pride in them from the roof tops. If I can do anything to normalize that conversation I will do so. I have written a picture book called I Love You Just The Way You Are. Presently, the illustrations are being completed. Thank You for sharing your experience with me.

    ReplyDelete