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Putting Ourselves in Other People’s Shoes!

December 20, 2011

Bell Ringers, Courtesy of IStockPhoto

I was listening to a story on NPR about the Salvation Army’s Women’s Auxiliary.  It was part of StoryCorps Atlanta entitled, Interview with Liddy Chatham, Maryann Gillespie & Audra Macon.  (When you go to the site, scroll for the program)  This group of women, chapters all over the United States, do charitable work throughout the year, and are well known for their involvement in ringing the bells outside of commercial establishments during the holiday season.  If you go to their websites you can see the full extent of the Salvation Army’s work, the Women’s Auxiliary mission, and the RingBells organization.

The radio story was an interview with three women volunteers in Atlanta.  They told of their 10 yr + commitment to the work of the RingBells organization and how rewarding the work is.  Their fond memories are of children who are so willing to give, pulling on their parents coats to hand over a few coins to place in the red bucket.  However, they did reflect on the ‘distant eyes’ of many adults who avoid eye contact with them so as not to feel guilty when they don’t give.  But the most interesting part of the interview was sharing stories about ringing bells in front of Lenox Square, a high-end shopping center in Atlanta, near the valet parking entrance.  Shoppers who drive up in their expensive cars, “clearly with means to give generously,” often go into the center avoiding eye contact and not giving.  Their insights into these experiences were fascinating, especially this comment:

I’m thinking you could afford to put some money in this (about people who appear to be wealthy).  The people who are least able to give money are the ones who always give you money.  This always contribute.  It makes me think that those people who are giving might have needed some assistance at some part of their life.

My thoughts were focused on this idea of empathy.  When we experience something in our lives that imprints on our emotions it makes a lasting impression.  We learn deeply from experiences that impact our emotions.  I think what these three women were saying was–people who understand what it means to struggle, have the greatest empathy for those in need because they’ve been there.  Their empathy is more likely to cause them to give or not avoid eye contact with the bell-ringer, which will probably draw them towards giving.

So my mind wandered into the realm of teaching and learning as I was thinking about the NPR story.  How can we (teachers, administrators, and policy makers) profess to understand what learning in traditional schooling is like for students unless we walk in their shoes?  Some of us might say, but I have been there and remember what it was like.  Really?   I wonder what we would say if we shadowed a student through their typical day (week) at a typical school in America.  We might need to shadow for a week, doing the homework, taking the quizzes and tests, and managing the pressures to fully understand what it was like.  If we experienced this firsthand, what would our reactions to schooling be like.  Would we leave No Child Left Behind just as it is?  Would we promote a learning environment exclusively built around the teacher?  Would we promote a learning environment that focused on reading and math, preparing students for high-stakes tests?

I wonder if we built up our empathy for what learning in American schools was like, would we be more interested in transforming the learning environment for the next generation of learners?

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