Empathy is What Education Looks Like

I was at the gym. While I was on the treadmill (the second time this week! Woo Hoo! In 8 weeks I’ll be up to running a 5k!), two things happened. One, a former Assistant Principal of mine got on the treadmill next to me. He was, what I like to call, a Yeller. Those of us who work in schools know the Yeller. They rule to roost through yelling. And they are effective. This is opposed to the Screamer. We know these adults, too, but Screamers are not effective. Yellers are.

I had a number of conflicts with this Assistant Principal. They were mostly generational: I was young and believed that I knew everything; he was a veteran and believed he knew everything. But, we had an important thing in common- we both cared deeply, like in the fabric of our being, about the success of the children that were in our care AND in supporting the adults around us to work for the success of the children that we worked for. He was a Yeller; I was an Empathizer. We both often over reached. And we had the same thing in our heart: a dedication to a life of service to youth.

So, back to the gym and the second thing that happened. The Yeller is to my right. We have high-fived. I am doing my CouchTo5K-school-is-about-to-start-stress-reduction-plan just fine, and then a news report comes on the air about the almost-school shooting, specifically about Antoinette Tuff’s 911 call to the police. During the call, you can hear her talking to the gunman.

At one moment, you can hear her say that she is going to run for her life. But the gunman is coming back to the office to reload. She is stuck in the office, and so all she has is her words and her authenticity and her empathy and her hope.

I will tell you a bit about it below, but you can listen to the 911 call here, in addition to MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell’s take on it. If you want just the excerpts from the 911, start at minute 4:35: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/45755883/ns/msnbc-the_last_word/vp/52815148#52815148

He comes back into the front office to reload, after shooting but not hitting anyone, the same office Ms. Tuff is working in, and as the 800+ kids and adults are being evacuated from the building, she begins to use empathy to connect with him.

She just talks to him. It is chilling. I tear up and get goose bumps.

{I am still on the treadmill. The app tells me, “Now, walk for 2 minutes.”}

As he tells her that he is mentally ill, that he is done with living, that this is “the real deal,” she tells him that he is going to be ok, that she once contemplated suicide when her husband left her, but look at her now. Eventually, she gets him to put down his AK-47. She tells him that she is proud of him for surrendering, and when he expresses worry that people will hate him, she says, with authenticity in her voice, “we aren’t going to hate you.” Instead, she says “I just want you to know that I love you though. And I’m proud of you …. ” She says, “It’s ok. We all go through something in life.” She even tells him that she will walk out with him to make sure the police don’t hurt him. She literally talks him through surrendering. She used communication to change his life and the life of those in that school.

Antoinette, the unarmed bookkeeper of the school, used trust, empathy, and ideas about resilience and hope to convince this desperate man to stand down. She used communication to talk him off of a ledge. And we could talk about her as a hero. We can also talk about how other school employees that attempted to face a gunman and were killed for doing so. We could talk about guns and mental illness. But I fear that will miss an important point.

Those of us who work in schools are charged with doing this kind of empathetic work each and every day.

Seriously. Every day. There are lots of ledges that we talk kids off of on a daily basis. Sure, often they are not as life-threatening as this. But the point is, it is often school employees–though empathy and kindness and compassion and through talking face-to-face and looking desperate kids in the eye–who have conversations that have prevented life from getting so unbearable for a young person that they resort to hurting themselves or others.

{I am still on the treadmill. The app says, “Now, run for 1 minute.”}

With students, I have used empathy to support students around depression, suicide, getting out a gang, not getting into a gang, dealing with abusive & addict & neglectful parents. I’ve helped kids with teenage pregnancy (boys and girls) and with eating disorders and with cutting. I have hooked students up with Al-Anon and AA, Gay & Lesbian resources, and how to find friends that are good for you. And so many other teenage-things. I’ve also had to make the decision that I was not qualified, that I couldn’t help alone anymore, and I have found other qualified adults to help me help students.

{I am still on the treadmill. The app says, “Congratulations. You are half way done!”}

And I am not alone. Each and every adult who works in a school building does this, especially the counselors that all got laid-off. And, for most of us, none of this is part of our “job.” We do this because we are Yellers and Empathizers. We are nerds with hearts and we are teachers who believe in kindness and life-long learning and socio-emotional intelligence. We are superheroes without capes or recognition, nor do (most of us) want either.

So when you lay-off the counselors, you rob young people of “mental health services,” but, really, you rob young people of a person whose job it is to be there when a kid finally has the courage to speak up and say, “I have a problem, and I need help with it.” Even if that problem is ‘trivial,’ or not a problem at all or easily solved, counselors teach students trust that they can reach out and get help, and they train kids in the skill of solving problems with the least harm. When we lose counselors, we lose a student’s first line of defense between themselves and chaos. And teachers lose a trained professional to help them to navigate how to support the emotional heath needs of all students.

And when you lay-off all of the Assistant Principals, this is what happens: you rob young teachers and young students of Institutional Memory. Because the old-heads have been doing this for a long time. This job is in their bones, its in their blood and in their breath. When you take their bodies out of our buildings, you rob young teachers of needed mentors, both in terms of what to do and, in some cases, what not to do in working with youth. You take away the man who said to me, on my second day teaching, “I am going to show you need to know. And I think you can handle it, but I am not sure.” Literally. He said that to me, and it transformed everything. I sure as hell wasn’t sure if I could handle it, but he was going to show me how.

And when you lay-off secretaries and administrative aids and building engineers and janitors, you rob young teachers of models of how to run a building. Of what it takes to make an organization function. Of how there is so much more to teaching than a fancy degree and content knowledge. Of what it means to respect your room as a space. Or how to get a key unstuck from a door. Of how to have small talk with people that may be different from you. Teachers and those who work in them are in the people business. We grow people. School buildings grow people. And there is no better model of how to get-it-done than a secretary. And the secretary and administrative aids and janitors are often the only people who can keep the other adults in the building on the right track. And they always know how to help you clean up a mess.

{I am still on the treadmill. The app says, “Now, walk for 2 minutes.”}

Especially in a climate where we train teachers for 3 seconds and then throw them into a school. I mean, although I had some experience as an adjunct at various colleges before I joined the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows, everything I learned about teaching in my first year was from veteran teachers, administrators and support staff. So when you get rid of seniority, you potentially lose teachers how have knowledge that can only be garnered through experience. Those old-heads taught me grit, and resilience, and to give myself credit because others weren’t going to do it. They taught me how to create a working teacher-student relationship. They taught me to never give up, to never steal anyone else’s supplies, to never act like you invented something that everyone else has been doing for decades just because you have a new word for it. They taught me that teachers need to rely on other teachers because we are all we have. And that the kids are always watching so you better be a model of what you want them to become. That you need to know when to fight, and when to back down, and to know the difference of when to speak up through words or through actions or through silence.

And so, for those of us who actually work in a school, and have that work in our bones, Antoinette Tuff was not a surprise. She was doing what she did every day. Using communication to teach a guy who was “going through something” about himself and about the people around him. If you really what to know what teachers do every day, this is it. We help students find themselves so they can go out in the world with strength and help others find themselves. Is it a wonder that we need summers to recoup and recharge?

When you defund education, you deplete a school’s ability to assist people in finding themselves. And if we can’t find who we are, and we don’t have anyone to show us how to be resilient, we make dangerous choices. We stand at the ledge and act in desperation because we don’t know what else to do to get help.

Schools grow people. I know it is a cliche, but, we who work in schools? We are all Antoinette Tuff.

At least, that’s what I think.

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