Empathy and Kindness: Now More Than Ever

Jack Creeden

March and early April are traditionally months when K-12 schools across America take some form of Spring Break. Whether the vacation coincides with Easter, Passover, or a mid-March hiatus, teachers, students, and parents anxiously await the much-needed time off. The rush of students out the door on the last day before a break is noisy, energized, and eagerly anticipated!

Although we believe, or at least hope, that the Covid pandemic has passed, it is clear that the impact on students of two years of Covid restrictions has a major presence in our classrooms every day. Research has shown us that literacy and numeracy skills were hardly augmented while under Covid restrictions. To their credit, master classroom teachers quickly adjusted and transferred their classroom skills to distance learning teaching. Parents served as important teaching assistants while attempting to juggle their own professional responsibilities working from home. Yes, we survived, but I’ve yet to meet a teacher or parent who believes that education thrived during that period.

Add to that the challenges posed by school shootings, climate change, racial and social injustice, and the ubiquitous intrusion of computer technology in our lives (who ever worried about ChatGPT three years ago?), and one should not be surprised that the mental health of students is a great concern.

Recent data from the CDC confirm the frightening news. In 2019, 40% of high school students reported feeling sad or depressed, up from 26% in 2009. And in 2021, the number of students reporting being sad or depressed increased to 44% (NYT, Oct 6, 2022).

We once celebrated a generation of digital natives who were expanding their horizons and seeking out troves of new information and learning online. Now we worry and have questions about the possible negative impact social media has on pre-adolescents and teenagers, especially girls (NYT, Sept 9, 2022). In cyberspace, there are few guidelines and almost no adult presence to monitor who says what to whom, what images and rumors are spread across the Internet in an instant, or how any of our online behavior affects a fellow student.

Parents are confused and struggle with setting guidelines for their children. How much screen time is too much? At what age should I stop monitoring what they are watching and with whom they are communicating?

At this time of the year, we are in the final stages of the college admission process, which has always been stress-producing. One has to wonder, however, if we are taking any steps to improve the process and reduce anxiety. The pressure to get into the right college that will lead to a summer internship that ends up with a highly-paid job upon graduation has never been so intense. The number of applications submitted through the Common App has jumped 30% in the last there years (NYT, 3.16.23). Students frequently apply to as many as 12 colleges, compounding the complexity of choice and swamping college admission offices.

In 2016, NYT columnist Frank Bruni wrote a carefully researched book about everything wrong with the college admission process. He urged students and parents to think differently about what they wanted from the undergraduate experience and not focus solely on the name of the institution issuing the diploma. The title of Bruni’s book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admission Mania seems to have been ignored by so many seniors who apply to an elite college where the acceptance rate is often as low as 6-7% (www.collegetransitions.com: June 13, 2022). Who can make sense of all that?

 ... we must teach the vitally important “second curriculum,” which some describe as the softer skills like empathy and kindness.

In the midst of so many issues over which individual students, families, and schools have little or no control, what can we do? Schools have a responsibility to provide the best education possible for all students, constantly enhancing literacy and numeracy skills and helping students develop a genuine understanding of what it means to be a productive member of a democratic society.

In addition, we must teach the vitally important “second curriculum,” which some describe as the softer skills like empathy and kindness. Those skills are developed in small group settings where students are given the opportunity, without fear of failure, criticism, or ridicule, to talk openly about what they see as important and how their background and personal histories may be different from others in their class.

Those differences need to be celebrated and honored in small classroom settings and in All School Assemblies. We must find a common purpose among our students and in our curricula (i.e., all we do with intention) instead of engaging in uncivil debates that serve only to separate us from one another.

PXL_20230331_172518985 (1)While we cannot ignore the negative impacts on our students from across all parts of our society, we can and must teach them the values of kindness and empathy to help them prosper in the ever-changing world around us. On a bulletin board in our Lower School, teachers have posted “It’s Cool to be Kind.” I wonder if we can agree on the content of that curriculum, or will the calcified ideologies that are tearing apart our schools prevent us from teaching that lesson?