top of page

"Are we more empathetic than we used to be?" (TBD) (18/365)

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

Recently, I’d read a blog post from a friend, colleague, and mentor, Dr. Donald Gately. He’d asked, in his COVID-19 blog, an essential question for us all: Are we nicer?

Reading this got me thinking and wonder, "Are we more empathetic than we used to be?"

My visceral and short response is, no.

Thirty seconds later, my updated response is, maybe.

And my final answer (at least for now) is not yet.

Yeah, that’s right.

To. Be. Determined.

As I lost sleep over my indecisive response, I did what I do of late: I sat down and I wrote.

Navigating a global pandemic has tested, and in many cases, strengthened, our resilience at home and work.

And school leaders are, by their very nature, confident problem solvers. However, coming out of this stronger in my convictions as a short and a longer-term decision-maker, I’ve got to admit, I'm still unsure about how we’re doing in the “empathy department”.

I mean, COVID has done us no favors.

  • Social distancing, for example, has prevented us from being in the same room with too many people for too many minutes, for too many months.

  • Masks, while preventing the spread of a deadly virus, have also gotten in the way of our being able to see people’s entire faces. And while it’s evident if some people’s eyes are smiling, it’s often less certain what they’re mouths are doing under a mask. And this goes for familiar friendly faces and complete strangers.

  • Being unable to share physical space or read people’s faces or body language has posed added challenges for sure for us.

Why is that lady scowling at me pushing a shopping cart in Costco? Or is she? Is she saying the same thing about me?
- My inner thoughts, for 15 months.

And while we hadn’t necessarily fully appreciated the feeling of sharing energy in a room, we have learned know this aspect is generally lacking…on a Zoom or Google Meet especially in Faculty Meetings. (There's little research available on the correlation between Baby Yoda emojis and staff morale.)

Working side-by-side, whether constructing a solution or deconstructing a problem, in close proximity of one another, and sharing small talk or deep thoughts or a laugh, these have all been missing (and missed) over the last several months. It seems that’s true for all humans.

Here’s good news. As a middle school principal, I’ve often (always?) said, nothing’s ever truly “lost” in a school. It’s just misplaced. And it will be found. Just not in the "lost and found".

I base this assertion of 12 years of finding lost sneakers, baseball mitts and lacrosse sticks, homework, library books, cell phones, Air Pods, skateboards, bikes, and even, a kid or two.

Middle School PSA: Kids, your parents bought you that cell phone for a reason. Text them to say you're going to your friend’s house after school, please.

(Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.)

I’d say, not that it’s lost, per se, but more that it’s misplaced. We know it’s here, we just have to find it. And, like we always say about the lost homework, "We have to keep it in a better place so this doesn’t happen again next time." Right.

So how do we do it?

How do we help kids "find" and build their “empathy muscles”?

3 Idea for Adolescents (and Their Families):

1. Mix it up.

Talking to your best friend since kindergarten, your friends at your lunch table, and your teammates are great. Challenging yourself to talk to one person a day who you don’t yet know will stretch your thinking, and your empathy muscle. What you learn will surprise you.

2. Join a club.

Review the clubs offered at your middle school. Recruit a friend. Commit to attend each club at least once, together. Return to the ones that you enjoy and that challenge you to grow. You'd be surprised how, different people have a shared interest in a club or activity.

3. Help someone.

Volunteer at a community beach cleanup, the local senior center, or the local town animal shelter. Committing to a cause larger than ourselves and engaging with others who live life differently often open our minds to seeing life and to seeing the world a bit differently.

It's just as important for adults to "find" and strengthen their empathy muscles. But how?

Teachers, talk to your principals about this. Principals, add it to your calendars. Speak with kids about changes that you note and may need to be addressed. Add a layer of accountability to the experience by writing about it and sharing your reflections and plans of action. Rick Wormeli shared some great ideas in this AMLE post about building empathy.

2. Create space for adults.

This value intensified and became clear during the emergency closure in March 2020. Well-check phone calls and routine informal remote check-ins became increasingly more important. Considering how much adults rely on predictable habits, creating space for trust and for active listening is critical. Lolly Daskal has written about the importance of being an empathetic leader as a leadership competency and why it's of such value in adult spaces.

3. Make plans. And more importantly, take action.

As James Clear writes, "Motivation is short lived and doesn't lead to consistent action. If you want to achieve your goals, then you need a plan for exactly when and how you're going to execute on them." Just as empathy should not be mistaken for a soft skill, intention should not be a substitute for action. The benefits to mental health and wellness, engagement, creativity are great in number and what we put into it will compound in the output.

It's up to us to choose the answer to the question, "Are we more empathetic than we used to be?" Let's start with daily actions that cast votes for being more empathetic in 2021-22.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page