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Two Cultures. One Heart: Growing Educator Empathy With a Global Perspective

by Wendy Turner, second grade educator, Mt. Pleasant Elementary School in Wilmington, Del.

My busy and wonderful teacher days start in a predictable way. I am up early to enjoy a few quiet moments of my own, then I hit the gym or read as I ready myself for a full day with my second graders. Over coffee, I think about my lesson plans, checking in with colleagues, and evening activities with my family. And this year, I’ve added something new to my routine. I think about 55 students and their teacher in Ota, Nigeria, over 5,000 miles away, who helped grow my empathy muscles and broadened my view.

We know that social emotional learning starts with the adults in the schoolhouse. In classrooms, the adult in the room sets the tone, models the skills we want to grow and see in our students, own failures and celebrate success. We are the weather. Effective educators participate fully in the journey of learning core skills that increase success in school and in life for our students. They just do. CASEL, The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, says “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” I know that in order to help my students develop SEL skills and competencies, I have to attend to and nurture my own SEL development.                          

How did I find inspiration from a classroom thousands of miles away? Through Empatico, an online platform that connects classrooms virtually through activities designed to build empathy, I used live video interaction with standards-based activities to connect with an educator and students on the other side of the world.

I was excited to be matched with my partner school and teacher in Ota, Nigeria. When we started communicating I learned my partner, Oluwaseun Kayode, is a fellow with Teach For Nigeria, an entity dedicated to ending education inequity in Nigeria. Through our connection over seven months, we learned we have many commonalities and forged a strong bond. Our students made connections through learning about local elections, classroom jobs, stories and what our schools look and feel like. Although internet connectivity in Nigeria did not initially allow for a live video chat, we exchanged videos on a regular basis with great success. During our first live video chat in March, we danced, laughed, asked questions and celebrated our relationship. To continue to build upon our connection and knowledge, my students recently did a homework assignment on one aspect of Nigerian culture. A particularly artistic student painted watercolor scenes of the different types of homes and clothing in Nigeria. One of the project requirements was that the display had an interactive feature. Her project included a lift up flap that read “Nigeria is a wonderful place”.

Prior to our work together, my students had little knowledge of Africa, let alone Nigeria. For the most part, their daily thoughts most likely didn’t extend past the typical, suburban, American life including extracurricular activities, play dates, sports, video games, family, friends, and birthday parties. Their lives may be very different from those of the students in Nigeria, but because of our work together, our time bonding and appreciating each other, my students clearly have a new appreciation for their life experience.

It is not only my students who have been inspired and transformed, but myself as well because of my new friendship. As we journeyed through our time together since October, I have been inspired by my partner teacher Oluwaseun. He is a tireless leader in the education movement in Nigeria, spending his time on weekends facilitating coding and programming learning opportunities for students, running teacher leadership events to inspire teaching excellence, recruiting teachers for programs for a better future for Nigeria, celebrating student success, visiting pupils at home, sharing their stories, and helping other teachers make connections with classrooms around the world.                        

I constantly think about how I can lead and inspire others and what more I can do to make my school, community and the world a better place. Let’s commit to growing our own social emotional competencies with powerful tools in the name of growing our students skills and preparing them for the world. Let’s model for our students what we want to see in them. Let’s be authentic lifelong learners along with our students. Contact me at wendymturner@gmail.com or on twitter @mrswendymturner. I can’t wait to help you get started. 

Wendy Turner’s story reflects her experience as part of an NEA Foundation-Empatico global learning community pilot program. Through the online Empatico platform, participating educators explored the world through classroom-based experiences with partner classrooms across the country and around the world.

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