Five Tips for Developing Empathy as a School Leader

The definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In a work environment it is never a good idea to have a group of people where everyone has the same personality and approaches a problem the same way. Having a diverse group of people leads to better problem solving and creative ways to approach the daily routines of any work.

In a school, I feel that it is even more important to have an extremely diverse group of educators because not all children learn in the same. Having teachers that can approach teaching a skill set from different angles will help educate all students.

The difficult part to such a wide range of feelings, opinions, and thoughts in a school is that it can lead to a lot of discourse. It is the job of the administrative team to be able to empathize will all staff and help create the vision and mission of the school. This will lead to a positive culture that people want to work in. Some people are more empathetic than other, but empathy is a skill that can be developed.

In the book Design Thinking for School Leaders by Alyssa Gallagher, the author shares that during a person’s journey to becoming an effective school leader, empathy is king. “Having empathy improves leadership, teaches you to ask the right questions, and enables you to understand others better.” For a school leader, asking the right questions and understanding their staff better will increase the productivity of the entire school through culture and collective responsibility.

Since empathy is a skill, Gallagher gives five tips for how to improve your ability to have empathy as a school leader.

Observation

The power of observation is developing the ability to see what others may overlook. Any person who has been in a certain job for an extended amount of time may create routines in which they function on a day to day basis. Try something new. Go into work one day as a parent would walk into the school. What things do you observe? What might a parent experience as they walk in the front door to attend a conference? You can do this from multiple perspectives; a parent, teacher, student, classified staff… What are the observations that you can make that may regularly be overlooked by yourself and those around you. From there you can begin to understand how people may feel when they enter the school that you lead.

Shadowing

I recently wrote a blog about my opportunity to shadow an administrator for a day. It has been the most influential experience since I have started my journey towards becoming an administrator. It can be hard to truly understand what a teacher, parent, or student is going through until an administrator can walk in their shoes. If a current administrator decides to try shadowing one of the people in their building, they must remember an important element: authenticity. This means that shadowing a student for an hour will not be representative of what their day is like. It needs to be at least half a day, but the most beneficial shadowing experience requires an entire day.

Interviewing for Empathy

Most schools will get their feedback or really any information they need from end users (students, parents, teachers…) through a survey. Surveys are a great tool to gather information from large groups of people, but surveys do not allow for a dialogue or more in-depth answers. Interviewing people in person allows for a conversation that can lead to real discussions and therefore solutions. Asking open ended questions that allow for the end user to really explore their thoughts and needs will paint a more accurate picture of the problem which will in turn lead to a better solution. The most important thing to remember when conducting and empathy interview is to always ask “Why?”. This question can always lead to more understanding for everyone involved.

Empathy Mapping

As stated before, empathy is a skill that must be learned and practiced regularly. In education we do not just tell a child how to do something and expect them to master it immediately without resources. Empathy mapping is a resource to help a person hone in on specific needs for people. This can be done by thinking of four different quadrants: thinking, seeing, doing, and feeling. By looking at these separate sections one can really begin to understand what is motivating the person to act in a certain way.

Vulnerability

People need to view empathy as an exchange. To have empathy you most definitely need to have the skill of listening, but equally important is the skill of taking risks in conversations. Making yourself vulnerable will encourage the other person to open up as well. As an administrator you must learn when to share moments of weakness, because if you overshare then you can appear incompetent. If you never admit fault, then people may doubt your integrity. Balance is the key to most things in life, and this holds true with vulnerability in education.

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