When I get home from work, the first question I ask my children is “how was school today?” Usually the answer is simply, “good” and they go back to playing with their Legos or watching Power Rangers. Sometimes they’ll elaborate and tell me all about how little Johnny poked a dead bird on the playground with a stick or how they used to like Jimmy but now they like Bobby… in other words, I seldom hear about what actually happens in the classroom itself.
So it was with some surprise that I heard my daughter tell me that a teacher stood up in front of their class and said “if you’re absent from school and your Mommy or Daddy don’t send in a note, they’re bad parents.” At first I thought that maybe she’d misheard or misinterpreted what this teacher said, but after some discussion about the meaning of the word “verbatim,” I realized that, yes, a teacher really did, in so many words, insult the parents of a classroom full of fourth graders.
My first instinct was to call the principal and complain. But my more immediate concern was helping my children understand that what this teacher said was wrong, and why. And so I introduced them to another new vocabulary word: empathy.
You see, when something negative happens, big or small, we often immediately read motivation into the event. If someone cuts us off in traffic, it’s easier to simply call them a few family unfriendly names or label them a terrible driver than to reason why they acted as they did. Maybe they’re a new driver. Maybe you were driving faster than they realized. Maybe they’re driving to the hospital with a wife who is in labor or a coworker injured on the job.
So while catharsis for our anger or frustration is necessary, it is likewise important that also we understand that not all negative actions are derived from selfish or malicious intent. Sometimes people make mistakes. Sometimes their priorities differ from our own and we need to try and see their actions, and how they affect us, from a different point of view. That is empathy and it is the first step in creating harmony in our often chaotic world.
Now, as I explained that failing to send in a note does not make one a bad parent, I suddenly realized that I, too, had experienced a failure to feel empathy. Clearly this teacher felt frustrated at what she perceived to be carelessness on the part of parents and she was, inappropriately, lashing out. But if I put myself in her position, I can also understand why such a seemingly small thing might make the job of a teacher charged with the wellbeing of thirty or so nine and ten year olds that much more difficult.
Being empathetic, after all, isn’t easy and it requires us to actively put ourselves into uncomfortable and disagreeable positions.
Such is the price we pay to truly walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.