19 January 2024

Walking in Their Shoes: Leading with Empathy

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Being a teenager is tough, and understanding teens can be even tougher. Psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour is a New York Times bestselling author, and one of the  foremost experts on adolescent girls. In her books Entangled and The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, Dr. Damour addresses various common challenges such as the pervasive attachment of teens to their phones, those eleventh-hour homework crises, the social web of frenemies, and the intensity of emotional highs and lows characteristic of adolescence. In a recent interview, Dr. Damour shared “I usually come out of conversations with girls feeling that adults don’t have enough empathy for teenagers. Because our adult lives have become very routine, I think we forget that the lives of teenagers are constantly dynamic.”

Sympathising with our teenagers is one thing, but trying to empathise with them is a more powerful tool. Amanda Morin, author of What is Empathy?, suggests there are 4 key attributes of showing empathy:

  1. Taking a different perspective. 
  2. Putting aside judgement. 
  3. Trying to understand another person's feelings. 
  4. Communicating that you understand. 

All of this got me thinking about my role as Head of School in an all-girls school, and how I could better understand and empathise with our students. As the new year kicks off, I have two student-focused initiatives that I hope will help me do just that.

Shadow-a-Student Challenge

The Shadow-a-Student Challenge is described by its creators at Stanford University as a “crash course in empathy”. How better to see our school through a student’s perspective than to join them for a day of classes?! School leaders in the program participate by shadowing students through an entire school day–participating in all classes, moving from room to room, sharing break times and completing in-class work and assignments.  Today was the first of my busy student shadow days, with the incredibly gracious Nyah in Grade 7 acting as my buddy. My visits will continue throughout January and February until I have shadowed a student in every grade, and will hopefully offer me a different lens through which to see our beloved school. Stay tuned for observations and reflections about the experience in an upcoming blog post!

Head of School Student Advisory Committee

Much of my day consists of meetings with leadership, faculty, staff and parents to coordinate current projects and make decisions on future initiatives in the school, and while our work is focused on enhancing programs for our students, those meetings don’t always include student voice. For this reason, I have created the Head of School Student Advisory Council which will serve as a vital link between the student body and the school faculty and leadership. The role of students in the committee will be crucial in addressing and discussing a wide range of school-related issues. Meeting regularly with me as the Head of School, they will have the opportunity to provide valuable insights, suggestions, and feedback that I hope will help contribute to the enhancement of the Sacred Heart experience for everyone. Students have been chosen in order to represent a diverse cross-section of students: from Grades 7 to 12; international students, siblings of Sacred Heart graduates, students new to the school in upper grades, etc. This group will help amplify student voice and feedback throughout the school year. 

The Sacred Heart mission is “to nurture the mind, body and spirit of each student in a supportive and caring environment”. Being a teenager in 2024 is tough, but we can help make it a lot easier by letting our students know that we are truly listening. By continuing to foster a culture of understanding and empathy, we will contribute to the development of resilient, confident future leaders.

Ms. Briand

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