writings and Reflections

Everybody Has a Story: Why Empathy Matters
Tara Christie Kinsey

One morning while greeting students this spring, an upper school student stopped to tell me about her recent experience participating in an affinity group with other Hewitt students who, like her, have a deceased parent. She said: “I don’t think I ever would have spent time with the girls in my group, and yet now I share something so strong with them. I made assumptions about girls I didn’t even know, and I was wrong. I feel...different. I think it was the most meaningful conversation I have ever been a part of at Hewitt.” I responded: “Wow. It sounds like that was a powerful experience. What was the most important thing you learned?” Without hesitation, the student replied: “What I realized is that everybody has a story, and that if I want to make a difference in this community and others, I need to make more of an effort to pay attention and listen to others’ stories.”

Everybody has a story. With the student’s words resounding in my head, I joined a delegation of Hewitt faculty, administrators, trustees, parents, students and alumnae at the eighth annual From Diversity to Community Conference at The Dalton School, where the keynote speaker Daniel Lubetzky, founder and chief executive officer of the healthy snack company KIND, reflected on this year’s theme: “Raising Empathy and Taking Action.” Lubetzky, who grew up in Mexico City and whose father was a Holocaust survivor, talked about the difference between being nice or polite—which allows one to remain uninvolved and coolly detached—and being kind, which requires noticing what’s going on, and caring enough to confront, to stand up, and to take action.

After hearing Lubetzky’s inspiring story, I gathered with administrators at other schools to address the inherent tensions between “doing school”—managing a school day packed with academic courses, a dizzying array of opportunities and electives, and the ubiquitous pressures of college admissions—and building empathy. But what if building empathy and doing school were not in competition with one another? What if they were mutually reinforcing? What would our schools need to start doing to make this possible? What would we need to stop doing? And what would we need to preserve in order for it to continue?

Empathy is one of the four core pillars grounding Hewitt’s philosophy of teaching and learning. But like any word, if we don’t take the trouble to define it and point to specific examples, the word loses its power, meaning, and relevance. So I thought it might be helpful to share why I believe empathy matters and what kinds of questions I will be inviting our community to ask about what it would look like for us to build on the good work we are already doing and institutionalize empathy across the continuum of the Hewitt experience.

Empathy at Our Origin 

If we dig down into Hewitt’s foundational soil, empathy is there at the root. Our founder Caroline Hewitt said: “It is the touch of life upon life that really counts most in a school.” Almost 100 years later, empathy remains a key element in our soil. Empathy matters because we believe that school should liberate students to do something in this world that is meaningful not only for themselves but also for others—and that the empathy built through the “other-orientation” of students’ pursuits is vitally important for cultivating a sense of meaning and purpose in life. Empathy matters because we believe, as our middle schoolers sang at our winter concert, “We are how we treat each other when the day is done….We are how we treat each other and nothing more.”

Hewitt teachers are finding ways big and small to make building empathy a part of “doing school” at Hewitt. When a first grade teacher redesigns her curriculum to focus on how the elderly and physically disabled navigate Central Park, or a middle school drama teacher prompts her seventh grade students to interview a classmate and then perform her story, or the ninth grade faculty rewrite the advisory program to focus on empathy skill-building and deep listening, they are engaging students in the work of learning how to treat each other with kindness and compassion.

Institutionalizing Empathy

These are but a few of the many examples of empathy-building work that is already a part of our school culture at Hewitt. Yet what would it look like for us to build on this strength and institutionalize empathy from kindergarten through twelfth grade, especially as a student faces increasing pressure to grow self-absorbed in her own achievement? 

One of my favorite sayings is: “We measure what we treasure.” If we seek to institutionalize empathy across the Hewitt experience, we must look to what we as an institution say we value. If we seek to clarify what we value, we must look to what we track and measure. If we value empathy, how do we know it’s happening? What would it look like to measure depth of empathy as we measure depth of achievement in physics or American history?

This year, we began measuring student empathy and kindness in grades six through twelve through a survey developed by Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education that helps educators, parents, and communities raise children who are caring, responsible to their communities, and committed to justice. The results of Hewitt’s student survey caught the attention of Dr. Richard Weissbourd, senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, child and family psychologist, and faculty director of Making Caring Common. Dr. Weissbourd was so taken aback by our survey results, in fact, that he visited Hewitt on a trip down from Boston so that he could see for himself what we were doing. Sitting in my office, Dr. Weissbourd explained: 

We have administered this survey with hundreds of schools, and Hewitt is one of the only high-achieving independent schools I have seen where students are getting the clear message that educators in the building value students caring for others just as much as achievement. These results are important and impressive. It is vital if we are to raise caring, ethical children that caring is prioritized by the key adults in their lives. I hope Hewitt will share the ingredients of their success with other schools.

In the fall, we will be sharing more details about the findings of our Making Caring Common survey and how those findings will inform our collective work in the months and years ahead. In the meantime, I invite you to share my joy and pride in the fact that Hewitt is a place where building empathy and doing school are in synergy, a place where students are taught to tune into others’ stories, to make meaningful connections between their unique gifts and the needs of the world, and to care enough to take action. We will continue to deepen our commitment to this important work each and every day, now and in the months and years to come. 

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