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A City Education: Students Need Empathy, But Leave the Savior Mentality at Home

Low income students aren't aliens from another planet. Empathizing with them and meeting them where they are is essential to reaching.


When people describe powerful leaders, they often use words like "determined" and "passionate." Rarely are leaders commended for their empathy.

Nevertheless, empathy is an important cornerstone of City Year's work to reduce the dropout rate. It’s something my teammates and I strive to practice every day at Normandie Avenue Elementary School in Los Angeles.


Normandie is a South Los Angeles school with about 1,000 students, and it grapples with a fair amount of challenges. But the school can't be seen through that lens alone. Throughout my service, I've kept the following (unattributed) quote in mind: "If you have come here to save me, you can go home now. But if you see my struggle as part of your own survival, maybe, maybe we can work together."

Corps members don't become tutors and mentors out of a desire to "save" anyone. Our service is about understanding the people and communities we work with in order to provide the best possible support.

Empathy—the ability to envision yourself in another person's place—requires patience and an open mind. It shouldn’t be confused with sympathy. "I feel sorry for you" is a sympathetic response to someone's struggle; the empathic response is "I feel your pain."

Through empathy, we strive to show students that everyone is worthy of respect. It's easy to get frustrated with a student who’s slacking off or acting out. By empathizing with them though, we show understanding of their difficulties and appreciation for their efforts. Students who are shown respect have a much easier time respecting others. They're also much more likely to respect themselves enough to try their best at school.

Empathy is similarly vital for teaching socio-emotional skills. For example, when my teammates and I see students putting each other down, we try to avoid simply telling them off. We prefer to start a conversation on where the putdowns are coming from.

One day, I noticed that Bret, a student in my homework room, was repeatedly making fun of Justine. I took Bret aside and asked him to explain. It turned out he wasn't just being mean—she told him she liked him, he got uncomfortable, and he decided to deal with it like most fifth grade boys would. Instead of lecturing Bret, I created a hypothetical situation where a girl he really, really liked told all her friends he was a loser. By putting myself in Bret’s shoes, I was able to help Bret put himself in Justine's.

We also make sure to listen without judgment when our students offer up stories from their lives outside the classroom. At 50 Acts of Greatness, the lunch club we run at Normandie, we give students a chance to discuss behavior in a relaxed environment. During one session on assertiveness, several students brought up the fact that they’d bullied others. Instead of giving them a slap on the wrist—something they’ve come to expect—we challenged them to think about where that behavior came from and why it wasn’t constructive.

Our students aren't aliens from another planet. Putting aside gaps in age, culture, and experience, we’re all ultimately human beings who share the same world. Once we recognize that fact, empathizing with our students and meeting them where they are becomes second nature.

February 15th is City Year's third application deadline. Click here to add applying (or sharing application information) to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Photo courtesy of City Year Los Angeles

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