In their shoes…bringing empathy to the classroom.

To be empathetic in life can be difficult. To be empathetic can also be a lovely quality to possess. As teachers we often feel and show empathy towards colleagues and pupils, as well as in our own personal lives. Many educators have blogged about the importance of empathy as a teacher and a leader. Empathy, compassion and kindness are important qualities that most, if not all, teachers demonstrate on a daily basis. However, the purpose of this post isn’t to explore or discuss empathy in the workplace. Empathy like creativity and curiosity is very important but how do you teach this? Instead we promote, encourage and create opportunities for pupils to be creative or curious and show empathy. I wanted to share a resource I created for pupils that has helped them to understand empathy, in different contextual settings.

Below, is the original resource that I created and trialled with my pupils. The template is very simple. It is obviously linked to the well known phrase “put yourself in their shoes”, although some pupils can struggle to grasp that phrase taking it quite literal so explanation and discussion can be required, depending on the age and ability. This task requires pupils to use their subject knowledge and develop their Literacy skills as well as focusing on empathy. Pupils have to write using first person narrative, as the individual connected to the topic. The pupils also have to fill in the toes with various adjectives to describe how they think that person would have felt.

The example shown was completed by a Year 9 pupil studying the Civil Rights Movement in the USA. Pupils tried to put themselves in the shoes of Rosa Parks after her famous arrest, that sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was essential that pupils developed an understanding and overview of the events to be able to explore empathy in the correct historical context. This historical content and subject knowledge is key. This is a good way to check for understanding and ability to recall key events. In the toes the pupils described different emotions including ‘hurt, angry, confused, upset…’. The rest of the foot template provided space for pupils to include knowledge of the event, by describing the arrest. The example above shows how the pupil has also used a range of Literary devices such as rhetorical question and repetition. This activity lends itself very well to History, studying signifcant events and individuals. The activity can also highlight how pupils have interpreted the events and individual, with many pupils offering very different responses. Another topic focused on key events and individuals of the 20th Century. Pupils were then given the opportunity to choose one of the individuals from the selection studied to complete the In their shoes task. The responses varied from Neil Armstrong returning from his moon landing to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Again illustrating good historical knowledge and attempting to gain a deeper understanding behind the events that occured and the individual too. Another example used in History  involved my current IGCSE class. A possible exam question focuses on the Treaty of Versailles and the reaction to it by the German people. A clear majority of people felt horrified at the time. Again, this task worked well drawing on pupils subject knowledge and developing a sense of empathy and understanding. For my class it also worked well as useful preparation for the exam question focusing on the reaction.

After sharing this resource on Twitter other educators online used it or adapted it for their classes. The example shown was shared by History teacher Kelly Chase, Queensland Australia, with her pupils learning about the Plague.

This is also a great cross curricular resource with Geography teachers sharing their examples.

Many English and Drama teachers have contacted me to provide feedback on this resource explaining it works well with character exploration and analysis when studying text. Exploring events and emotions that characters have experienced.

I think this resource has great potential for PSHE, although I have yet to use it for this subject. As part of PSHE and wellbeing bullying is often discussed with pupils and the devastating impact/consequences it can have, therefore putting themselves in the position of a victim to understand how distressing bullying can be could prove to be effective. Another teacher used the template with pupils that were learning about the current refugee crisis to help the pupils try to grasp the difficulties that many people have been experiencing and how that could possibly feel. The In their shoes resource can easily be adapted across the curriculum. In my previous school I was a teacher of MFL. I think this resource could be used for MFL but obviously for higher level classes such as GCSE and/or A-Level as it would allow pupils to practice sentence structure, past tense and using various adjectives.

Empathy isn’t regarded as a priority with so much focus on key skills such as Literacy, Numeracy and getting exam results which are obviously very important. However, we can certainly support and encourage our pupils to become more tolerant, considerate and understanding young people through focusing on empathy.

The template for this resource can be downloaded for free here. Thank you for taking the time to read my post. If you’ve been inspired by this idea then I’d love to hear from you to find out how you’ve taken it/adapted or remixed it and used it in your classroom. Please feel free to follow my blog and leave comments below or why not just drop me a message on Twitter .

*It is important to note that I am not suggesting this resource be used when teaching the Holocaust. For advice and guidance teaching the Holocaust you can visit this website.

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