Practice Vertical Empathy… Please! Vital Ingredients for a Healthy School Culture

by Ross Peters, Managing Partner.

Steamy stuff in our part of the world.

This week my family and I started in Atlanta, GA, went to Norris Lake, TN, and now are in Richmond, VA, my hometown. It is aggressively hot and humid – as soon as we open the door to go outside the heat pushes in – hegemonic heat, an unstoppable engine of heat. It is merciless.

More and more so are we – merciless, that is. Our patience is out, our ample indignation, at one time held like a good card hand to our chests, is now face up on the table. We have become our own heat waves of impatience, frustration, and all too often, hyper-certainty (with a healthy dose of righteousness).

In the last several years, we have witnessed the cost of these human heat waves. I have been seeking the right terminology for this observation, and so far I have only come up with this thought – we are seeing a broad-based breakdown in empathy, more specifically, what I am calling vertical empathy. Vertical empathy brings together three levels of empathy – emotional, cognitive, and compassionate – in the context of the workplace where there are hierarchical structures and power differentials. Without real vertical empathy, leaders cease to empathize with those that report to them and, just as importantly, the reverse – those that are reporting to someone else cease to empathize with the person or group to whom they report or with leadership in general. We can’t help create a generation of healthy adults if we are unable to model healthy human relationships and functional, productive dialogue. As adults, we must grow up.

Definitely not a scientific term, vertical empathy is my only way to capture a concept that is vital for our schools. A requisite school culture ingredient, I fear vertical empathy is becoming scarcer in schools. With vertical empathy, the stage is set for schools and the students within them to flourish. Without it, relationships between different, yet all vital, groups within the school will drift apart. Learning suffers, and students pay the price. (A year ago in INC Magazine in an article by Paul L. Gunn, Jr., I read about three key areas of empathy: emotional, cognitive, and compassionate. Take a look, it is short and clarifying even though his topic is not at all on schools (it is on businesses and customers). The last year has kept these concepts regarding empathy front of mind for me.)

It is not that we can’t empathize, we just don’t, and to be frank, there are a number of points of view coursing through our national character with which we should not, as human beings and citizens, empathize. As a result, communication is corroding in many schools. Empathy is a requisite factor in all successful communication. The pandemic has, and our political and politicized divides have too often subtracted vertical empathy at the very moments when it is most necessary.

Empathy is a requisite factor in all successful communication. The pandemic has, and our political and politicized divides have too often subtracted vertical empathy at the very moments when it is most necessary.

There are no easy solutions here; however, we feel we must address this particular challenge in order to place our schools in a position to determine the best ways forward. Kids deserve healthy adults in their lives – ones who can both empathize with others and hear thoughtful dissenting voices. Until a school adult community is able to do this, we will pervert the most important work we do – create deep, engaging learning experiences for students so that they might grow into the adults the world needs. Only healthy adults and adult relationships can create a school focused on students rather than adults.

So… this week and every week we need to build empathy and notably vertical empathy in order to serve our students to the best of our ability.

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New Summer Course: Undisciplined!

We are excited to announce a four-day, dynamic workshop to help you find and create connections between your subject and others!

Undisciplined: Creating Connections for Deeper Learning

AUGUST 8-11 | 9:00AM-3:00PM | The Willows Community School, Culver City, CA

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