Macungie, Pennsylvania is home, and ONE WAY TO THINK ABOUT IT is a blog by Catherine Gehman, educator. Her posts are designed to energize and inspire teachers in all stages of their career by simply giving - giving ideas that work for her, and by bringing attention to past and current expert voices in education.

The World Needs More Leos: One Way Empathy Changed Me

The World Needs More Leos: One Way Empathy Changed Me

February, 2019

Dear Reader,

You should know that I had an entirely different post in mind - an empathy lesson plan I taught several weeks back.  But, honestly, nothing I wrote down seemed to work - very frustrating. I thought I needed a little Google inspiration.  Big mistake? I got much more than I bargained for - articles, I read many articles, watched videos and did a lot of talking with my family about empathy.  Not a big mistake! Actually, it ended up being a really rich experience. Just really time consuming, too, and still no February blog post. Finally it became clear that this story was pushing its way through the murky confusion, asking to be told.  I felt I should not stand in its way.

This story is dedicated to every teacher who knows what it's like to have a student like Leo walk into her room.  



The World Needs More Leos: One Way Empathy Changed Me

Leo was all-consuming.  He was a prickly, high-energy, easily-agitated boy whose work seldom showed how bright he really was.  He was out of his seat constantly. He stirred up arguments and fights. He talked back and rolled his eyes at me when I asked him to do something.  He spoke out of turn. And, of course, he thought he knew everything. Leo was difficult.

I knew deep down that Leo needed a curative mix of patience, love, and appropriate consequences. But what would this look like for Leo?  

I began with simple questions. What's it like to be Leo?  What is he asking for that he cannot put words to? What is it like to walk in Leo's shoes? Empathy would drive my plan.  

Each day I made a point to greet him and ask him about his sports and his beloved dog, Sam.  I also made a regular lunch date with him and a friend of his choice away from the noisy cafeteria where we could have conversations about life.  It took time to teach him how to converse because a conversation for him was like kicking a ball into a net at a soccer game - beat the other kids in getting words into my ear the fastest and loudest.   Leo also was given plenty of brain breaks, and when he needed it, some consequences for poor actions and attitudes. He also, at times, got a little humility from me in the form of an apology when I lost my cool with his exasperating behavior.

Over time I watched a new Leo emerge.  A kinder, calmer, gentler side of him. His days were no longer wrought with constant friction.  Sullenness and agitation turned to joy and eagerness. He wanted to help me with everything and became my right hand dude (his title of choice).  This all happened so gradually that I had forgotten how difficult the first half of the year had been with Leo.

So, what changed Leo?  What was the formula? There was none.  I did nothing extraordinary.

Truthfully, the year could have ended and I would have had some satisfaction that I had helped Leo.  But, there was one more story yet to unfold that surprised and changed me forever.

Almost June, Thank God!

The school-year was coming to a close. We were all hot and tired, and the school had no air conditioning.  I was exhausted, not just from Leo, but also because my class was filled with more social/emotional and academic needs than I could manage.  Now let's add some unimaginable stress and sadness in my personal life to the mix.

So, on this one miserably hot day, the children filed into the classroom from recess and sat down at their seats.  I could tell immediately that something was wrong because I didn't have to remind them to get quiet. They were silent and wide-eyed, and several students were whispering, one being Leo.  "Here we go," I thought impatiently, "What now?" Moving from the door over to my desk, I sat on the edge of my desk, getting wide angle on all of their concerned little faces. When I inquired as to what was wrong, no one said a word.  I was starting to feel a little worried, so I coaxed, "It's okay. You can tell me."

It was Leo who finally broke the silence.  "Mrs. Gehman, out on the playground...this kid from another class..." He supplied me with all the necessary details before finally getting to the part the kids in class were all whispering about.  "She said you were…" A brief silence overcame him as he weighed his words. "...fat." His contorted expression told me everything. He had taken the insult, the one meant to hurt me, to his own heart.

The class was dead silent.  And, while there was a tinge of embarrassment on my part, I've got tougher skin than that, and so I made a quick decision to respond with a grin and, "Well… umm… I am."  I thought this would lighten things up, they'd laugh, and we'd move on. I was wrong. Eyes were still wide and focused on me as I tried to figure out what to say or do next that would move them past their concern.

Leo could no longer contain his emotions.  He drew in a deep breath as his face reddened and uttered his words before he broke into guttural sobs. "I told her she was being mean and she shouldn't talk about you like that!" But what he said next will stay with me forever.  He drew in another breath and let his words out like air from a bellows. "She doesn't know you like we do!"

I was stunned.  What happened from there was better than any movie or story, because it was real life.  The children emerged from their seats and gathered around me, wrapping arms around me and each other for a huge group hug, and there was Leo right in front, his tears and sweaty face absorbing into my skirt while my year of stress and sadness absorbed into his compassion.

I had walked in his shoes.  Now he had walked in mine. And he wanted to protect me.

I'll never forget Leo.  He reinforced what I have found to be true in life.  That is, when we put good things like patience, love, and empathy out in the universe, it makes its way back to us -- sometimes in strange and unexpected ways -- but it does find its way back to us.

Who are your Leos?

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