An elementary-only independent school located in Atlanta, serving children ages three through Sixth Grade since 1951.

Teacher Feature: Maryellen Berry

Backing into Empathy

By Maryellen Berry, Upper Elementary Division Head

Have you ever made the statement, “How in the world could anyone ever do. . .?” In your own mind, it seems impossible, ridiculous, or thoughtless for the action to occur with any rational person. I have thought it and, admittedly, have said it.
I have heard about people backing into their garage door and often thought about how it could be possible. It would be dark not light inside. It would be visible when you checked the rearview mirror. It is just a clear lack of being with it.
Yesterday, I opened the garage door before 7AM. I loaded the car with my bag for school, as did my daughter, and I climbed in. Realizing that I forgot my to-go cup of coffee upstairs—for the second day in a row—I hurried up the stairs, jumped into the car, closed the garage door, and put the car in reverse. A moment later, I heard a crunch. I had done the impossible, the ridiculous, the thoughtless and hurried action.
When Uber enabled me to get to work, I heard stories from colleagues of other kinds of impossible, ridiculous, or thoughtless and hurried actions with vehicles. They seemed to get it. I felt a little better. A little less foolish. A little more understood.
It got me thinking. Empathy, and the compassion that accompanies it, is often from a place of experience. We can try to put ourselves in another’s shoes—and should—but it is from experience that we reach deep into our hearts and feel.
As I interview for faculty positions, I will often hear the stories of people’s lives that have led them to education. They go something like this. . .
  • I struggled in school and want to be a teacher who can help others who struggle.
  • I was bored in school with all the worksheets and doing stuff I already knew. I wanted to find a way to inspire kids who feel the same way I did.
  • I was a naughty kid who was fearful of not being liked. I just wanted someone to connect with me. I love being able to help a child find ways to belong. 
Most of us would not wish for the heartache, pain, or embarrassment that typically accompanies experiences that develop empathy. But, when those experiences occur, we develop the capacity to not only hear but to feel. To care and to understand. We—who have been there—move to the front lines to support the person going through the pain or heartache.
We have spoken a lot about empathy this year at school as it relates to Positive Discipline. Seeking to understand where someone is coming from is important. And sometimes, we may find the power to empathize from one of our impossible, ridiculous, or thoughtless and hurried actions.
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