Tuesday, June 5, 2018

When Moving "Beyond the Walls" Doesn't Refer to the Classroom

After reading contributions from Tia Simmons (p. 23 of the PDF) and George Couros, I had a #lightbulbmoment of my own. Simmons spoke of her experiences learning outside of the classroom as she shopped for groceries with her father. Couros dwelled on the projections people show on social media and how they often belie a darker truth. Empathy plays a huge part in both of their stories, and this is a quality I have always attempted to foster in my classroom. When asked about the role empathy plays when going “beyond the walls” of the classroom, my initial answer focused on the idea of “beyond the walls” quite literally, with the idea of outside-the-classroom learning that Simmons touts. After reading Couros’s blog, though, I have a different vision. “Beyond the walls” to me no longer means going past the four walls of the classroom or the physical barriers of the school. I’m now wondering how I might enact empathy to move “beyond the walls” that my students (and I, as well, if we’re being completely honest) create on social media, in their words, and in their actions.

Add https://pixabay.com/en/love-empathy-openness-relax-hearth-482709/

Everyone I know forges a defense for himself, a sort of fortress inside of which he feels safe. Heck, I even do this myself. Couros calls it the “highlight reel;” the act of showing the world only what we want it to see. He mentions a teen who posted all the right things online, convincing the world that all was placid in her world. And then she committed suicide. Apparently, nothing was right; appearances are so often like that. We’re the ducks in the old adage: calmly gliding across the water while our feet are paddling furiously below the surface. And while most of us never want the world to see those frenetic feet, most of the world does its best to never attempt to focus on them. I’m guilty of this myself. While claiming to be infused with empathy, there is a part of me that accepts the increasingly-given answer of “fine” when I ask “How are you today?” It seems this is some twisted social contract. We are required to inquire of others; others are beholden to provide a simple answer; the person who queries accepts this benign, bland answer and breathes a sigh of relief that no more of his time is taken.


If I truly went “beyond the walls,” however, I would push. I wouldn’t ask students questions where “fine,” “yes,” and “no” are acceptable responses, just like I wouldn’t ask questions of my students that they can easily Google. If I want them to think critically in the classroom, then I must align my empathy with that thinking, so that engagement is necessary and relationships are strengthened. I need to delve more deeply, ask them what they did since the last time I saw them, notice and be up front about them not looking well, and if they project a wall, at the very least tell them, “I’m here if you need anything” or “If you want to talk later, I’m available.”

Photo Credit: David Dutrow

Couros speaks of the filtering that we do and how necessary it is because of the plague of comparisons in this day and age. But sometimes we filter because, in our quest to be polite, we don’t want others to spend their time on us, because people are so busy that “fine” has become a welcome answer. We do harm to ourselves, mentally and physically, because we are afraid to bother others and we are afraid to ask for help. While we extol the beauty of collaboration in the classroom, for all its virtues, what we need is collaboration in life. I recently tweeted that I felt that more than anything, I needed to help develop my students into decent people. The world needs those more than it needs any kind of genius or innovation. Simple. Kind. Humans. And this is where empathy can help us go “beyond the walls.


So this is my #lightbulbmoment: treating each other well, developing a strong rapport with students, working hard to discover their strengths and weakness; this is all more important than delivering content and so much more important than teaching them the best way to fill in standardized test circles. Going “beyond the walls” in my classroom must mean finding ways to take down projected barriers, brick by brick, and finding the wonderful human inside. It means being there for students who need a mentor, a guide, an ear or a shoulder. Every student is an expert in something; every student has talents; every student deserves the best. No pedagogy, no material, no platform will ever mean as much to my students as my time and my empathy, and moving forward, that must be my mantra, if I want any real growth and learning in my classroom.


  1. WOW!!!! This was so powerful. Thank you so much for sharing this, David!

    1. Thank you for reading, Sarah! This topic really made me think, and it's an area I know I need to work on, as well!

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