A journey to empathy and self-awareness

Spring 2017

By Katalyn Vidal

I was the only child of hardworking immigrants who were grateful for my independent school education. But when I was a fifth-grader back in 1989, I recall my whole class teasing a new girl named Jessica* relentlessly. There was no culture of advisory courses, and I was much more concerned with watching Voltron than sharing my feelings.

Some years later, Jessica and I reconciled. A decade later, when she got married, I learned that Jessica’s father had been abusive to both her and her mother. I felt a heavy sense of shame and regret for the part I played in her early middle school struggles.

Today, educators have far more awareness of social-emotional health. As teachers, we pride ourselves on welcoming all students and the unique personalities, skills, and passions they bring, and we encourage self-expression and gradual independence. It is a journey students and teachers take together.

Last year, the fifth grade at my former school featured a lesson on groups vs. cliques. I already knew that my students were well-rounded; what I didn’t know was how well the middle school advisory program was working to develop self-awareness and empathy. These are qualities that put our students ahead of the game as they wade through the murky waters of adolescence — and qualities that students remind teachers to keep learning.

The journey began when I asked my advisory group what it meant to be popular. My students’ responses impressed and moved me. One student shared, “I think I am popular because I am always myself.”

But others told a different story. In a society where kids are bombarded by conflicting messages, they struggle to prioritize what is important. As adults, can we blame them? They live in a world where popularity is based on having the latest cellphone, shoes, Instagram, and having lots of “influence.” One girl in my group, a talented violinist and voracious reader, said that “all the pretty girls with phones” teased her at her old school. The boy sitting next to her, Bob, shared that his elementary school friend, John, didn’t fit into any cliques at their old school. So when Bob changed schools, John called Bob every day for a year because he was “unpopular” and had not made new friends. I was impressed by Bob’s empathy and loyalty.

Most students agreed that having a small group of trusted friends was key to avoiding the pain of exclusion, teasing, or rumors. They also understood that as individuals they needed to “ignore the silly stuff” that was rude, and to just “walk away.” Most of the students also agreed that they would invite an excluded person to hang out with them, or to join their game so that they were not playing alone. This is empathy and self-awareness personified.

My entire advisory group felt that having nonjudgmental peers was key to feeling accepted. Overall, I was shocked at how much ownership they took over their behavior and how it defined their social experience. Another one of my students, a talented drummer, remained quiet, but he wrote something that struck me. In a moment of remarkable candor, he noted that trying to fit in was “not important” because “they judge you about everything and you can’t be you.” Yet another student wrote, “I would rather have a few best friends than a ton of tacky friends.” Truer words have never been expressed.

As middle school teachers, we are trained to notice and intervene when we observe cliquey behavior, but as all teachers and parents know, adult ears are not always near. We encourage self-expression and gradual independence, and we want our students to feel empowered enough to problem-solve with their peers. Thankfully, independent school advisory programs have evolved to the point where we try to translate community building and responsible citizenship into a language that students can understand and use.

My students articulated and demonstrated compassion: how to put themselves in another person’s shoes and how to take risks when it comes to standing up for what is right. They remind me to be more welcoming and tolerant. Maybe we, as teachers, can think before we act and ponder before saying something hurtful. Maybe when we do that, we can show our students how their stories drive our mission to create healthy communities and a more just world. To show how not only can the teacher teach the student, but how the student can teach the teacher.

*All names have been changed.
Katalyn Vidal

Katalyn Vidal is a middle school Spanish teacher at The Speyer Legacy School (New York). She previously taught advisory at Montclair Kimberley Academy (New Jersey).