Tyrone C. Howard draws a line between sympathy and empathy for poor children and students of color.
Sympathy – feeling sorry for students – can mean teachers have lower expectations, settle for less and choose not to challenge students, he said. It can lead to a “pedagogy of poverty” that focuses on basic skills and denies children the rich opportunities offered to more advantaged peers.
Empathy, on the other hand, means listening to students, learning from them and understanding how their culture and life circumstances influence how they think and talk and behave in school.
“I’m asking you to be empathetic and to expect and demand excellence,” he told an audience of Monroe County Community School Corp. teachers this week.
Howard, a professor of education and director of the Black Male Institute at UCLA, spoke with teachers Tuesday during a professional development session on cultural competence. A renowned scholar of race and educational equity, he is the author of “Why Race and Culture Matter in Schools” and “Black Male(d): Peril and Promise in the Education of African American Males.”
Howard suggested it can be easy to fall into the sympathy trap. Take the nation’s 56 million public school students and compress them into one classroom of 30 students: 12 will live in poverty, and three in extreme poverty. Ten speak a primary language other than English. And one is homeless.
Seven will experience physical, emotional of sexual abuse during childhood. And perhaps that many more will experience abuse that goes unreported and undetected. No wonder some students are angry, some are sullen, and some act out in ways that adults consider inappropriate or disruptive.