Life's IEP - Teaching Empathy Institute
Teaching Empathy Institute works to establish emotionally and physically safe learning communities for elementary, middle and high school students and the adults who work with them. Working in the Hudson Valley of New York, TEI creates tailor-made programs designed to foster dialogue about social culture building while strengthening the capacity for the infusion of empathy and compassion into all aspects of the learning experience.
Teaching Empathy Institute, SEL, Social and emotional learning, mindfulness, diversity, education, bullying, anti-bullying, k-12, learning, david levine, school of belonging
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Life’s IEP

Those of us who work with children too often see the emotional impact current life circumstances have on our students. The typical “helping response” is to label, test, or separate in order to manage the unhealthy behaviors which we encounter. A young person’s painful experiences need not be a way of life, but rather, potentially an opening to another way of being, with new power amidst life’s possibilities.

Within the context of the big curriculum author Gary Zukav refers to as Earth School, each individual comes into the human experience with a life IEP (Individual Educational Plan), and it is our responsibility to nurture the realization of this plan by encouraging the unique expression of each student’s life story.

caringA gift of hope

If we as teachers can see our classrooms as filled with amazing children in development, coming to wholeness through the human experience, then we can help facilitate and nurture the realization of their life IEPs by way of the types of settings we intentionally create and the loving messages we deliver.   We may not always see the immediate results of our efforts with our students, but somewhere deep within each child is a forest with rich fertile soil. This soil is waiting to be tended, tilled, nurtured, and enlivened with the nutrients of love and compassion. We call what we teach “life skills” or “social skills,” but another perspective on what we could teach is offered by vision quest guide Bill Plotkin, who guides people in the practice of what he calls Soulcraft.  “Soulcraft is a set of experiences, ceremonies, and processes” , which help an individual unearth his or her life purpose by interacting with one’s inner self to strengthen the realization of that purpose. Getting in touch with one’s life purpose provides greater depth of meaning and passion in one’s life and often awakens a person who has been dulled by a lack of meaning in his or her life-something that often happens to children in school.

Soulcraft in the Classroom

In a classroom setting, the teacher can facilitate the practice of soulcraft through such things as taking her students outside and writing poems, songs, or stories; reflecting on the experience, guiding students in visualizations or imaginative journeys, journal writing, working or reading in “contemplative” or sacred silence, establishing classroom rituals, and by creating ceremonies or celebrations-all within the context of the school experience. When a teacher begins each day or week, for example, with the students sitting in a circle, taking turns sharing while others listen, asking questions and summarizing back to the speaker what is being said and felt, an honorable practice is taking place within the context of a ritual: the class meeting. When a student sits in a special cozy chair at the head of a circle and is asked questions by his or her classmates (practicing honor language), about something of which he or she is proud, this is a ceremony of celebration known as the Circle of Honor. One of my favorite practices is to have students write songs about life’s joys and successes, struggles and challenges. We then create original melodies, record the songs, and share them in a Circle of Honor Ceremony. Practices like these open students up to the way of the soul in a safe and nurturing way. When our souls are opened, the impact, though not always seen in that moment, is nonetheless profound and everlasting, creating a shift in the life of that person.

The Need for Love

There is a place of emptiness, which lives inside each of us. It is a longing which comes out of our need for a soulful experience and is expressed so eloquently by songwriter Bob Franke (1983) in this excerpt from his song For Real:

There’s a hole in the middle of the prettiest life,

so the lawyers and the prophets say,

Not your father, nor your mother,

nor your lover’s gonna ever make it go away,

And there’s too much darkness in an endless night

to be afraid of the way we feel,

Let’s be kind to each other, not forever, but for real.

Love is the glue, which helps put a broken and shattered life back together again into new and hopeful shapes. It is a power unlike any other. It is the friend who checks in on you when you’re feeling down or the unexpected card at the perfect time. Love is the feeling you get when you watch your three-day-old child sleeping peacefully in his cradle or the tears of the mother of that newborn. It is the momentary flash of inner peace one feels when watching the sunrise or the sense of inner contentment, which comes from the silence after a huge snowfall. Love is the truth which lives in the Swedish proverb:

Shared joy is double joy. Shared sorrow is half sorrow.

Love is what all children need, to be loved is to belong, to belong is to have a place, and to have a place is to be. To feel separate from others or unloved is essentially to feel “dismembered,” or cut off from the group. The opposite of dismember is to remember, and that is why it is critical to know and understand the life stories of our students and to respond to these stories in supportive, nurturing, and nonjudgmental ways. We need to create an environment that reconnects the young person to a world of safety and trust-to paint a new hopeful picture of what life can be with the certainty that it will be.