Croskey’s Corner: Empathy

by | Nov 5, 2023 | Croskey's Corner | 0 comments

We’ve chosen his article on Sensitivity to apply to Empathy.


When you talk to the average elementary school student (and some high school students) these days, try asking them to describe their Schema. They will often understand what you are asking and might say that you’ll have to tell them what they are reading about before they can describe their schema. Schema (plural: schemata) is the framework people use to organize what they are running into as they read, based on their prior knowledge. One’s Schema organizes knowledge in memory by putting information into the correct “slots,” each of which contains related parts. Reading expert John McNeill calls schema the “concepts, beliefs, expectations, processes — virtually everything from past experiences” which impact how we understand text. Here’s an example: Read this phrase: “Waiting for Superman.” For me, a lifelong comic book reader and possessor of all
things “Superman,” this sounds like waiting in line for Issue #703 of Superman Comics. That’s the issue that featured Cincinnati’s skyline. (No, not the chili!). A philosopher who is an expert in Friedrich Nietzsche might read this and think of the great philosopher’s concept of The Superman. Progressive educators read this and think of the the documentary criticizing education, Waiting For Superman. Talking about Schema is not just a matter of “Different Stokes for Different Folks.” It’s about having varied histories and bringing those histories to interpret a reading.

The Character Quality of the Month is Sensitivity. One of its definitions is “Trying to understand others’ needs, feelings, and experiences.” At least part of this definition involves seeking to understand the Schema of a person, the needs and feelings that person has, which will be built upon and influenced by their experiences. When I was a kid, I was frequently told that I was Too Sensitive. I guess I carried my feelings on my sleeve, as they say. Others could always tell whether I was upset, or angry, or happy, or embarrassed. Surprisingly, though I got feedback which said the whole world knew what I was feeling, I reacted by NOT expressing my feelings out loud. NOT surprisingly, my pent up feelings fermented and I would often blow up (at my brother or my friend David) or blow out (cry, get sad, look miserable). It did not occur to me at the time that being very Sensitive meant I also felt higher levels of joy than others. No one ever told me that I was Too Sensitive when I was exhilarated. Looking back, I can see that my obvious pain hurt the people who cared about me. They wanted me to be less sensitive because they wanted me to hurt less, and less often. I tried to be less Sensitive – to feel less deeply. It did not work. As the expression goes, when I tried to silence the voices inside of me, my very stones cried out.

I am sure my Sensitivity came from a combination of personality attributes and my Schema. When I had a moving experience, I was REALLY moved! It got so I was the poster child for Sensitivity. In high school, one day, I was walking down the hall. Two girls walked by. One was a cheerleader whom I had a 7 year crush on. They were being typical girls, laughing and talking about people. Later, my “crush” (how dated that sounds!) walked up to me, apologized in case they had hurt my feelings, and told me they weren’t talking about me. I was flabbergasted. I said thanks and probably was secretly saddened that they had NOT been talking about me. Anyway, I later realized that my reputation, or my sleeve if you prefer, preceded me. People were concerned about me being Too Sensitive, even on the occasions when I wasn’t! I can hear my college English teacher saying, “Get to the point, Bill!” I think people judged – and misjudged – my Sensitivity because they lacked empathy for me. They sympathized, but they did not feel what I was feeling from my position. Empathy is hard for any of us. Walking a mile in another person’s shoes is an exhausting process because the trip is lengthy and the shoes don’t fit. But a way to try to gain empathy for me would have been for others to get to know my Schema. That requires careful questioning and then attentive listening to the answers to those questions. Yet a thorough understanding of a person’s Schema will almost surely improve chances for empathy.

What can teachers do? They can get to know the Schema of their students. Person of the Day, Line Leader ( a colleague recently shared that the highlight of her seven year old’s year had been the day he was Line Leader!), Student of the Month, attending a kid’s games or activities, watching a foster child’s court hearing as he gets adopted, or kids creating papers which tell what they aren’t – and what they ARE! These and countless other activities let students share their histories and give the teacher empathy for them. It’s a lot easier to be Sensitive to another’s needs if you know their Schema.