Empathy In The Morning Car Ride

Recently my school, in collaboration with a local elementary & middle school, set up a screening of Most Likely To Succeed.  This edu-documentary is focused on 21st century learning and how we need to change how school is organized and works for kids.  It uses High Tech High from San Diego as it’s example of what can be.  Sir Ken Robinson, Tony Wagner, Ken Jennings, & Watson the computer all weigh in on the topic.  The movie has many strong arguments that are worth exploring.

The content of the movie isn’t my focus.  There is a scene at the beginning where we see a 4th grade girl sitting in a traditional classroom.  She is the daughter of the narrator, and as he begins to explain to us that she has grown disinterested in school, we flash forward to a scene where the girl is in a conference with her mother and the teacher.  The young girl is upset as she is not doing well in school, doesn’t enjoy attending, and surely feels like she is disappointing the adults.  As the teacher waxes on about building a strong work ethic now and that the young girl shouldn’t want to waste her time in class, this blonde youngster with the angelic face looks at the camera.

Frozen on her face is clearly some emotion.  And at that moment, the director offers something along the lines of this:  “I know that face.  What my daughter is thinking right now is that this is Bull Shit!  All of this is Bull Shit!”

In one week, my freshman daughter will celebrate her 15th birthday.  She has transitioned to high school much smoother than I anticipated.  Her classes are challenging and she is getting stronger with time management.  And each day as I drive her to school in the morning, I focus on merely keeping the conversation going.  I have worked in secondary schools for nearly 25 years, and I know that at any instant a teenager can tune you out.  It may last a few minutes or a few weeks.  On this particular morning, my daughter was in one of those generous moods where she was talking a lot and sharing a lot about what was on her mind.  And this morning, in particular, she was discussing “the real world.”

She said, “dad, it gets real old to have teachers tell us all the time about what it will be like in the real world.  Or that they have to prepare us for the real world.  Don’t they realize that the present world, the right now, is what matters most to us?  And that maybe they should focus on what is most pressing now?  I don’t want to hear about the real world when I need help now.”

So as I reflect on the movie screening, my car chat with my daughter, and a recent article I read on the effective 21st century leader, there is one word that keeps popping up in my mind – empathy.  And the manner by which I try to employ empathy is via a couple strategies that I want to share.



First, we need to listen.  I mean actively listen to what these young people are offering.  Maybe it’s a struggle at home, or an overloaded schedule (perhaps constructed by parents), or maybe it is a genuine lack of interest (i.e. the young girl from the movie).  The point is that we should be there to help them find the words to describe what they are feeling.  Resist the chance to diagnose it for them.  Empower them to articulate their own feelings.  This offers dignity and respect.

Second, we can affirm what they are feeling.  And I suppose that what I mean by that is to let them know it is okay for them to own their feelings.  Sharing something like, “that must be really frustrating”, or “I am sorry you are dealing with that.”  While I can’t really apologize for circumstances and I can be sorry someone is facing them.  I think that too often we try and “solve” the situation for them.  I know this happens to me as taking off that “principal hat” isn’t always easy to do.  “Give me an example of what you mean”, is a phrase I find myself using  when I am able to remove the principal hat, and actually put on my father cap.









Each of us had adults tell us that they were “preparing us for the real world”, and that we would end up thanking them later.  I remember not heeding that advice very often, and I think I ended up okay.  I am sure there were struggles that maybe I could have avoided however those experiences have also led to the development of who I am now.

My point is that when we can empathize with these young people, regardless of whether they are family or not, then maybe we have a better chance to really connect with them.  To actually be present in the moment with them when it counts the most.  And let’s be honest, more so than ever, we really don’t know what the “real world” will look like for them.  Maybe the young girl from the movie is right and we are full of shit.  So maybe our best next move is to slow down, listen, be honest, and honor their current reality.  I’m not a betting man but I know that is my best wager.