The Importance of empathy

A couple of years ago I had the privilege of participating in a workshop led by Leadership + Design, a professional development firm based in California. The workshop was focused on bringing design thinking to the admission process.

One cornerstone of design thinking is the importance of empathy, and in our day together, we imagined being the prospective parent at our respective schools, and reinvented portions of the admission process with empathy at the center of our plans. It was a powerful exercise for attendees that helped them more closely “walk a mile” in the shoes of parents.

Fast forward: I recently attended a prospective family event for a K-8 independent school as part of my work supporting schools. There was a very poignant and common moment that occurred that is worth examining more deeply.

During the event, a teacher gave a strong presentation about the school’s writing program, including a short sample lesson. Afterward, a parent raised her hand and asked “can you tell me something about how you might differentiate the lesson you just described for students who may need more support or more challenge”? The teacher gave a perfectly competent answer.

But there was a major piece missing from the explanation: empathy.

There are significant assumptions we can make about most families considering our schools:

  • The family is considering a major financial commitment.
  • The family may be scared that what is going well in the current school (be it preK or any other grade) will not be repeated at the potential new school.
  • The family may be afraid of what expectations there are of parents at the prospective school, and how they will measure up. 
  • The family may be questioning their child’s ability to fit in, to keep up or to be challenged. 

The list goes on. Parents looking at our schools are anxious. It is hard to imagine a scenario where anxiety isn’t at least a portion of the picture.

The teacher addressed the question, but not the emotion underneath the question. What if the teacher had added “we know that all students have different strengths and areas of challenge, and are committed to meeting them where they are.” Or, “we know that students coming new to our program may need some extra support and we partner with you to be sure we are all on the same page in support of your child.” Obviously, your message needs to be aligned with your school mission and your perspective on these topics. However, I would argue that there is absolutely no substitute for empathy in the admission process. It is a subtle but significant difference. To be effective in the role of ambassador, we must understand our potential families on an emotional level, and we must display that understanding.

Design thinking gets to the heart of this topic. Sales theory preaches it from the rooftops. An authentic display of empathy is a powerful way to align with prospective parents and begin a true partnership on behalf of children and learning.