Empathy is an important word in education, but what if it's not your strong suit? Fellow ASCD Emerging Leader, PJ Caposey, writes about his empathy jrney. I'm really proud of PJ's honesty in this post. It's so easy for empathy to fall to the wayside when our responsibilities increase and patience wanes. But this is a great reminder for all of us to take a step back and put ourselves in someone else's shoes.
My name is PJ Caposey, and I am ED. No, not that kind of ED. I am Empathy Deficient. I always assumed I was, and then one day I took an academic survey attempting to identify an individual's Empathy Quotient (EQ). The results came back and said that my personal EQ was on par with someone with autism. I went from being suspicious of my empathy levels to being highly self-aware.
Less than six months after taking this assessment a former student in my district unexpectedly passed. While I had never met the student, I had grown to know the family and attended the visitation with my Board of Education. Visitations are always incredibly difficult, particularly when they involve young people. As we made our way through the extremely long line, I approached the father, and he gave me the biggest of bear hugs. The kind of hug you give a close friend, not a professional acquaintance. When he pulled me in he told me to go home and hug my four kids as hard as I could tonight and next time I went home cranky to give them all a big hug and think of him.
I LOST IT.
I cried for twenty minutes straight. I am not a crier (except for Undercover Boss – always gets me, I don't know why). I shared this story with my mentor, and he chuckled. I asked why and he said, "You experienced empathy."
If that was empathy – all I know is that it is exhausting.
From that point forward, I have made it a mission of my professional career to be thoughtful and mindful of empathy. Even though I struggle to feel the emotional connection of genuine empathy, I think all of us can cognitively feel for someone else and at a minimum, suppose what he or she must be feeling.
This has made me a profoundly better leader and has helped me avoid many missteps I would have made before discovering my ED problem. What I see in my district and in the other schools I have the privilege of working with, however, is a profound lack of empathy for those we work with.
When we first think of a lack of empathy among the professionals in our schools most people's minds go to the lack of consideration occasionally shown to our teachers by their administration. This is resoundingly true. The farther and more removed someone is from the classroom, the easier it becomes to shove to initiative after change after new innovation upon someone.
I sincerely hope that any administrator reading this thinks about this the next time they move forward with a new idea. This does not mean that you preserve the status quo – it just means that you understand that every action you take in a boardroom or office impacts dozens of people in their classrooms, homes, and beds as they may struggle to fall asleep at night.
But empathy goes both ways, and often, leaders can feel alone in their missions to balance the mandates of their supervisors, wellbeing of their schools, and the needs of their teachers.
Very rarely do we talk about how faculties treat leadership and I am not sure why, because it matters. Personally, when I see high principal turnover at an otherwise ‘normal' school, I can almost assuredly tell you that principals are not being treated well by their faculty and staff or their supervisors. The saying often goes that people do not quit jobs, they quit bosses. Well, in education, many principals quit their faculty and staff. This is not intended to sound like I am being an apologist for all school leaders out there – I am not. That said, empathy should not be something we turn on and off.
I was working with a principal earlier this year who made a recommendation to the superintendent and their Board of Education to terminate someone's employment. In coaching this principal, I knew how she felt about the individual. She truly cared about this teacher and had provided opportunity after opportunity for growth. The day before she was to make the recommendation the principal called in tears, fearful of the devastating impact this decision would cause. After a sleepless night, the principal decided to do what she thought best for kids and made the recommendation.
After two long months of backlash the superintendent decided not to move forward with the decision. The principal, a talented and hard working individual, decided it wasn't worth it to continue in the position and decided to go back to the classroom.
Being a school leader was too lonely. People were too mean. The price to pay was too steep.
It does not have to be this way. Empathy and understanding are a clear way forward. And like respect and trust, the best way to receive empathy is to deploy it as well. Relationships, distributed leadership, and embracing the difficult work and upkeep of culture and climate are all key pieces to moving schools forward.
But at the core, at the root of this, is the need for understanding and empathy. Someone's title does not preclude them from the graciousness afforded to others. Conversely, someone's title does not entitle them to forget their responsibility to care, be human, and empathize.
As humans, shouldn't we be compelled to be a little bit better to each other?
I see it this way. Empathy is a game-changing superpower. If you have it – use it. It is one that I simply do not possess as part of my DNA. So, I work really hard at trying to be mindful of others and considerate in my actions. And I know if I can do that, even with my ED, that everyone can do it. Quite simply, I think our schools would be a better place for everyone if we did.
PJ Caposey is an award-winning practitioner and sought-after consultant and speaker specializing in school leadership, culture, and the change process for individuals and organizations.
PJ has authored six books, trains, speaks, and leads workshops throughout the country, but also is still a full-time award-winning practitioner serving as Superintendent of Schools for Meridian CUSD 223. You can find him on social media at @MCUSDSupe.