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While the buses are rolling again this year, Back to School 2021 is still like nothing we’ve ever experienced before, and it’s not quite the version we’ve been longing for. We must adapt to the fall we’ve been given.

Typically, when teachers and students return to their classrooms in August and September, there’s a short get-to-know-you period (which tends to be longer the younger a student is) followed by a push to get on to content. But this year, I think we need to consider the getting-to-know-you as one of the most primary things a teacher will need to do. The fear, isolation, and trauma that we’ve been through has changed us all, and each one of us will have to grapple with what that means. None of us will be able to magic away what’s been lost these past 18 months, and teachers will need to be ready to employ different methods to reach out to their students and bridge a divide that’s deeper than it usually is after a summer break. We can’t do that without empathy.

In moments of anxiety and uncertainty, we need to consistently pivot toward one another instead of turning away from each other because of conflict. That’s not always easy. As I was scrolling through Instagram a few weeks ago, and I came across a prompt that has helped me with that pivot. Dr. Becky Kennedy (@drbeckyatgoodinside) was talking about navigating conflict with a partner or child. She encouraged her audience to ask themselves a simple question, “What’s the most generous interpretation you can give for why someone is doing x?”

My first instinct is not always to give people the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes I make assumptions too quickly. This question asks me to stop that pattern and instead be as generous as possible; it’s already kept me from reacting too harshly or quickly on more than one occasion. In just a few weeks, having this question rattling around in my head has called me to empathize more readily, which has helped my relationships with my family. Just the other day asking myself this question helped me understand that some of the screaming that my preschooler does is much more a stress-based response than an intentional act of defiance.

I think it’s an internal prompt that can help an entire school community do better for one another. When teachers find themselves making assumptions about their students, they can step back and think through what series of actions led them to this moment. When staff needs to work through internal conflict, they can first seek to understand someone else’s motivation. When administrators are navigating a difficult situation with a family, they can assume that caretakers are acting out of love and best interest. In yet another year interrupted by Covid-19, we must keep searching for ways to deepen our connections and relationships. Looking for the most generous rationale for why something is happening is one tangible way to do that.

So, here’s a kind of September challenge to try: This month, when a conflict inevitably rises, take a step back, and deliberately ask yourself what the most generous interpretation of the other person’s behavior might be. Take a few minutes doing this and then go back to that individual to try and find a resolution. After you’ve done it, reach out and let us know what you noticed, both in your interaction with the other person, and in how you felt throughout that conversation.

Happy back to school season, everyone. May your well of empathy run deep.


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