The Power of Empathy

Reflections of a First Year Teacher…

By Ricci Horwedel


I’ve watched this video a handful of times; each viewing brings to mind a different context. I replay difficult conversations with friends, asking myself, “Do I really embody the bear as much as I think I do?” As of late, the forest animals and their struggle bring my thoughts to the classroom.


I don’t hold an immense amount of memories from my middle school years. They seem distant and overshadowed by more recent ones. I could probably describe, in vague and overall relative terms, the outline of various language arts or history lessons that seemed dynamic at that time. Sadly, they are few and far between.


What I do remember, as clearly as what I ate for breakfast this very morning, are emotions. Strong emotions. The kind that overtake your thoughts and color every minute detail of your day. My 7th grade class had a student teacher who made us feel lesser and small. That month was painted red with the injustice of her words.


Lately, I’ve been attempting to collect these past emotions; I seek them to guide my daily interactions with young people who are currently experiencing the same intensity of feeling. Over and over again, I return to a memory of my mother. Late in the evening, I had returned from dance practice, overwrought by the idea that “I wasn’t pretty.” This simple belief, recently implanted in my brain, led to dramatic sobs on the living room couch. Instead of citing the extent of my theatrics or trying to dissuade me of what I was sure to be true, she asked questions to extend her understanding. She listened. She ran her fingers through my hair. The burning logs in the fireplace set the red room aglow. I suddenly felt a sense of peace and equilibrium.


I return to that moment when a student rests her head on my shoulder, tears dotting both cheeks because of a close call with a bee. I travel back to the magnitude of that evening when I stand at the base of a tree, calling up to a student perched on a branch who is lost in the sorrow of a friend’s troubles.


While I hope my students will internalize the themes running through our daily, classroom discussions, there’s no way to ensure that they will. No amount of relevant projects or assigned readings will guarantee it. However, there is something inherently powerful about being fully present with another in their experiences–about choosing empathy over sympathy.


If anything, I hope my students will remember the way I treated them. I hope they will say that I was a co-captain, riding the waves of their emotions in solidarity, instead of ignoring the storm they perceive. I hope they will recall that our lessons about the Middle East highlighted the cries of Israelis and Palestinians, instead of a series of facts regarding war. Then, I will have done my job. I will have demonstrated that everyone’s troubles should be recognized, that, at the bottom of everything, each person deserves, at the very least, consideration and a listening ear. Tomorrow, when a student is overwhelmed by the world, you can hopefully hear my saying, “Wow. I’ve been there, and I agree. It’s not easy.”

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