Speakers Address Importance of Empathy in Education

During a professional development day for faculty and staff on February 17, three speakers shared their perspectives on the role of empathy in teaching and the importance of understanding that students come into a classroom with different experiences and perceptions.
Olen Kalkus, head master at the Carrollton School of the Sacred Heart and founding head of Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart, presented “The New Gender Gap.” Looking at specific biological and chemical differences between the male and female brain, Kalkus discussed research on the ways these differences can affect learning. Kalkus also drew from his personal experience as a teacher and administrator in both single-sex and coeducational schools. In one example he offered, teachers reached opposite (but equally erroneous) conclusions about their math students: the first assumed that because a student sought extra help, she had no natural aptitude for the material; the second believed that because a student did not seek extra help, he had no interest in the subject. Throughout the presentation, Kalkus stressed the importance of educators who strive to see past their own assumptions and biases to more fully understand each student’s strengths and challenges as well as his / her approach to learning.
After Kalkus, Rose Stuckey Kirk P ’18, a Gill trustee and current parent, spoke to the group about preparing students for life. Kirk presented from the perspective of a parent, reflecting on her son’s experience at Gill, but also talked about the teachers she had as a child who affected her the most profoundly. One in particular, Mrs. Jackson, gave the students a secure environment in which to discuss, not simply academics, but things that were happening in the world. Kirk noted that those times were as politicized as today’s world—perhaps more so—and that she valued the opportunity to form opinions of her own, to be heard and to better understand other perspectives through teacher-led discussions. Those experiences, she argued, are a natural complement to academic skills and educators should not shy away from those conversations, but rather create boundaries and guidelines for productive discussion.
The morning assembly concluded with “Cultivating Empathy,” presented by the school’s Director of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs, Tracey Goodson Barrett. In her talk, Barrett invited the audience members to think back to the best learning experiences (and the best teachers) in their own lives. Although the individual stories varied, a common idea emerged: the best learning experiences come from educators who have a mastery of the subject and are able to relate to their students. From there, Barrett looked at ways in which each individual can cultivate greater empathy. She noted that the goals of communication, active listening and the ability to collaborate with people who hold different points of view are not simply techniques for more effective teaching, they are the foundation of a community.
Reflecting on the speakers, Director of Studies Irene Mortensen said, “It was an especially compelling day, and I am grateful to all of the speakers for sharing their insights and perspectives. I think it was particularly inspiring to hear Rose’s story and her meaningful and memorable connection to Mrs. Jackson, a teacher she is still in touch with today.”
Gill St. Bernard’s is a private, coeducational day school for students age three through grade 12, located in suburban New Jersey. Each of the three school divisions provides a vigorous, meaningful and age-appropriate curriculum, and all students benefit from the environmental learning opportunities that exist on our 208-acre campus.