By: Allie Broas
My placement teacher reads this line over and over again, finally calling on her sixth grade class to repeat the line in unison. The line belongs to a poem by Peter Fischl, written about the infamous photograph of the little polish boy with his hands up surrounded by Nazi soldiers. I watch the gravity of the photograph and the poem hit the sixth graders I have worked with since August. Each responds differently, but what is apparent is that their teacher has just unleashed in them something incredible: the feeling of empathy.
Our mission as City Year corps members is to teach. What we teach our students, however, is unique to each corps member. I work with people who can design and teach a complex math lesson within minutes. I work with people who can teach a group of unruly middle-schoolers about the value of discipline, an astonishing feat that does not go unrecognized. While my prowess in the aforementioned categories is lacking, I have come to realize that with less than two months left, the greatest gift I can leave these students with is to awaken their desire to care and feel for one another.
We live in a day and age where rates of empathy are declining, and, as a result, “how to show empathy” is the subject of many e-how articles. Perhaps it’s due to the amount of time we spend isolated in front of a screen, but, working with preteens, it is apparent that the ability to care for one another has been increasingly overlooked in the face of academic pressures. As I watch my sixth and seventh grade classes progress through their unit on the Holocaust, I realize that empathy and effective learning go hand in hand. By giving our students the opportunity to empathize with the subjects of their classwork, they inadvertently begin to care far more about their work and, in turn, the people around them.
“Empathy is the ability to walk in someone else’s shoes,” my placement teacher informs the class. While the definition always sparks a series of jokes about whose shoes are the smelliest, it is clear that the majority have learned how to be empathetic without any advice columns or google searches. As we gear up to end our year in service and leave our schools for good, we can only hope that this feeling, along with the many other lessons we have endeavored to teach them, remains.