The Empathy Step - 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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The Empathy Step

I recently received a Fitbit as a gift from my wife, Jodi. The Fitbit is a watch which, amongst other things, monitors how many steps one walks during the day. The most exciting time of my day now happens at night, when my Fitbit vibrates with its lights flickering, celebrating that I have walked 10,000 steps for that day. 10,000 steps seems like a lot but when it’s done with  purpose and support, when it becomes a way of being, it’s like breathing, it’s natural.

What if empathy was practiced so frequently that it became as natural as breathing or walking 10,000 steps in one day?  I once heard an essay by Phil Powers, the CEO of the American Alpine Club, on National Public Radio’s This I Believe. In his segement, Mr. Powers described some wisdom that was shared with him by an “old mountain climber named Paul Petzholdt” who advised Phil to “rest in the middle of each step completely, but briefly.”  This rest step is a way of pacing oneself, as a way of being mindful of the moment within each moment.  It is profound wisdom which can be applied to all aspects of life, including practicing empathy in schools and communities.

Life as a teacher is often harried and it’s the relationships that too frequently get short-changed. It is not uncommon to get into conflict with others as a result of not knowing what they believe and why. I know myself, as a teacher, there are times when I am tired and emotionally drained and a student acts out as a way of expressing a need or desire. The rest step mode allows me to pause ever so slightly, re-focus and remember the purpose of why I am standing before that child.  At the closing of Phil Power’s essay he writes:

There is magic in any faith. Every once in a while, rushing about, my belief in pace rises up, slows me down and grants me a view of a sunset, a smile from a stranger or a conversation with a child. I owe these moments to what I learned from an old mountain climber and have practiced ever since.

Many years ago,  I attended a five day intensive training in the canyon lands of Cortez, Colorado. The focus of this work was on setting up and facilitating a nature-based group experience. A few times during the week, we hiked behind the retreat center where we were staying and followed the trail up to some beautiful and amazing cave dwellings.  At the end of the week  when the training ended, I stayed an extra night because my flight home didn’t leave until the next morning.  After everyone left, I decided to hike up to the caves one more time. It was late January, around four o’clock in the afternoon, and I knew I had about ninety minutes of daylight to complete my hike.

I followed the trail up to the caves, stopping along the way to take in the majesty of the canyon country on a crisp winter’s afternoon.  After fifteen minutes at the caves, I headed back down the trail.   As I hiked back, I became disoriented and lost track of which way the trail went. I turned around a couple of times and began to feel nervous and scared.  At this point the sun was setting, and darkness and decreased temperatures were creeping in.  Just as I felt my fear turning into panic, I took a break, sat down, and looked around me. It was a peaceful setting and I centered myself as I scanned the terrain slowly with my eyes.  Suddenly the trail which had become so familiar during the week, showed itself to me. Much relieved, I followed it down without incident and thanked the canyon for showing me the way. This rest step experience was significant because it taught me that whenever I feel lost, the place or person I seem to be lost in, can show me where I need to go if I give it a chance.

Hope not fearReflection creates the space for fluidity, and with fluidity come new paths with new opportunities for a heartfelt existence; one that can touch the lives of others.  At TEI we work on behalf of children and the people who work with and for them.  Empathy is our guiding star as it serves to illuminate and celebrate  the beauty that resides within each child’s beating heart. If you are finding yourself a little disoriented in these times, not knowing what happened to the trail,  find a way to “center yourself”, take an empathy step, and listen for the music of a child’s beating heart. If you let the music be your guide, you will find your way out of the canyon, the way I did so many years ago.

David Levine,


Teaching Empathy Institute