Teaching empathy and helping students see themselves in the world
I’m wrapping up my series on brilliant and brave young people with a feature on Nicole Taylor (Niki), a new teacher who is already wise beyond her years. Niki restores my faith that the future of our youth – and our world – is in good hands.
When I decided to interview Niki, I knew I was going to have to type fast to keep up with her. I have watched her tear through life in various wonderful ways since she became my daughter Angela’s best friend in kindergarten. I credit her with many things – everything from helping my child find her voice, to igniting youth in our community to take action on issues such as cancer, gender and social equality, and racism.
Niki puts it this way, “I didn’t have a choice. I come from a social justice minded family.” This includes her mother Fran, an educator in Seven Oaks School Division, her stepfather Greg, who is a Technical Specialist in Project Management for the federal government, and her large extended family.
Niki’s passion for what she refers to as “empathy, equality and community” is also fueled by her South Indian heritage on her father’s side. “I’m a brown person who is very aware of my white privilege,” she says. She has first-hand experience of being kicked out of cabs, asked to pay for food in advance, and having the “N” word flung at her. “Regardless of the things I had to go through, I could go home to a privileged family where I would get some relief.” This has made her keenly aware of the challenges faced by young people who may not have that kind of support at home or at school. “I have had the opportunity to live multiple experiences because of how I look and the privilege I have. It’s my duty to do something – to use that platform to speak up,” she says.
“It’s important for me to do things differently.”
Finding belonging and value
While attending university, Niki was involved with Wayfinders, a community-based mentorship and outreach program for high-school aged students offered through Seven Oaks School Division. After graduation, Wayfinders hired Niki to teach summer school. “I knew this wasn’t fun for a lot of students so did what I could to engage them more fully by asking them what they wanted to learn,” she says. “Students are a wealth of knowledge, and I’ve learned the most from Indigenous youth. So many of these students hold the history of the country their own families’ history.”
She’s drawn heavily on the Circle of Courage®, which is a model of positive youth development based on the principle that to be emotionally healthy all youth need a sense of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. “It starts with belonging,” Niki says. “Everyone needs to feel like they belong, so I always try and work that into the lessons.” She adds that creating that sense of belonging where the student feels loved and supported provides the stability they need to move forward.
“So many students have fallen through the cracks because they don’t meet the standards of the school. We need to look at how we can change their world, so they see themselves and the value they bring.”
This is the foundation for everything she hopes to achieve as an educator. She says that the education system needs to go beyond just delivering the basics, to using engaging approaches that include everyone. “It needs to reflect real life and real people.” She adds, “We need education that recognizes diversity – whether its Indigenous, newcomers or LGBTQQ2IA – and we need education that has mental health supports. Every classroom can do that; every school and division needs to be willing to provide that training.”
She has seen the pressure put on grade 10 students to choose the courses to plan the rest of their lives. “There needs to be more of a career development focus at the heart of courses so that this is a less stressful and more realistic task,” she says. “If students have some exposure to what careers connect to chemistry, pre-cal or physics, they will be more comfortable or sure of those choices.”
This is where Niki sees that empathy, community, equality and career development are equally important. “The first three should be the underlying lesson of finding a career. It allows students to find fulfillment and a career path that will truly sustain them, or give them the ability to grow when they need.” She believes that approaching education in this way shows students that learning doesn’t always happen at school. “It happens at home, at work, with your friends, while you’re volunteering, and that means there can always be changes down the line. It’s never too late to go back and get a pre cal credit, to upgrade or to go to university and pick a new career.
“If we use empathy to see that potential in each other and in the world around us, I truly believe everyone will be more capable of finding they’re own success.”
Niki points to one of her high school teachers who had such an approach. “Derek Kun (Art and Music Educator, Kelvin High School, Winnipeg) took the time to really love his students and to get to know them. I can’t imagine how many lives he changed just because of that.”
She also applauds unique approaches like the Big Picture Learning program from the United States, that combines challenging academic work and real-world learning, mentorships and internships. Niki has recently been hired by Red River College to help deliver two programs through Seven Oaks School Division that will use the Big Picture model. One is the Indigenous Social Entrepreneurship Programme, which helps grade 11 and 12 Indigenous students understand both social enterprises, capitalist business and how these two concepts of business can work together, while the other is the Pathways through Technology Early College High School, which will explore how technology plays a role in life and the careers and opportunities that come out of it.
“Programs like these can really help educators meet students where they’re at to see if university or college is a realistic and compatible choice,” she says. “University may not hold any benefit or fulfillment in a person’s future, and to tell students post secondary is always the best step, is where I think some dishonesty comes in, especially if that’s not even an option for the student.”
Indigenous perspectives: Bridging differences
Niki tries to bring Indigenous perspectives into her teaching as much as possible. I asked her why this was important to her.
I Indigenize my work because of the damage of colonization. We know now how long-lasting the harm of assimilating Indigenous children by eliminating their Indigenous identity has been.” She adds, “When I can create space for Indigenous voices, histories, stories and world views, it allows students to see themselves. It can also prompt a conversation around equity in diverse communities and create space for other identities who need to see themselves – like a positive chain reaction that can build a compassionate community.
“If we can help students gain a better understanding of the negative things that have happened in Canada to Indigenous people as well as other cultures, it’s another opportunity to teach empathy,” she says. In addition to that, she believes that the Indigenous perspective on respect for the land and how it sustains life is a great way to teach about sustainability and community.
“There’s a real thirst for this knowledge. I’ve worked with groups of young people who want to learn and understand, who want to support each other, love the earth, and create a more sustainable world.”
Her approach, when she hears “negative stuff” is to break it down. “I’ll say ‘let’s connect to how your history figures into this’ and try to help students see how their privilege factors in or to see the similarities that they might experience in their own lives.”
She comments that the most that many students know about Indigenous history is residential schools and that there’s so much more Indigenous people have to teach us. “We spend so much time with students.” Niki says. “We can start showing them a more diverse world beginning in grade 1.
“Why are we teaching about Lord Selkirk but not Chief Peguis?” she asks. “Why are there only Christian holidays on the school calendar? Why not bring in elders from a variety of cultures to share their perspectives and knowledge?”
In her view, this would help all students, including new Canadians, empathize with one another and see similarities in their struggles rather than being unsure or afraid of one another. “For our Indigenous people there are so many negative images out there, because of homelessness and poverty, that is all many people see. This is a negative rhetoric that we haven’t corrected that feeds a continuing cycle of minorities thinking bad things about each other.”
Creating welcoming, safe spaces
Having that sense of belonging along with empathy becomes even more more important for students whose only safe place is in the school environment.
“It can instill the courage and confidence for these students to share how they’re feeling, or help them keep going because that class is the only safe space they have,” Niki says. “I’ve had students find stability in safe programs and classrooms, where they were able to question the world around them and bring those questions home. The confidence to be open about themselves has definitely saved lives. I’ve seen safe spaces completely transform angry and sometimes violent students into some of the happiest, wisest and most resilient people I know, because they’re given the time and space to figure it out.”
The bottom line is that we need to look at the classroom and set it up in a way that is safe for everyone. “Whether that means a non-binary, or Indigenous or other cultural representation, the goal is to help students get past their anger or anxiety and create a safe space where they can just be themselves.” A key part of this is again, getting to know every student in a way that fosters empathy and belonging. “I make a checklist and go back to those students I haven’t talked to in a while,” she says.
“The less time we take to address every young person that walks through the door the more we’re going to lose them.”
“It’s my job to say ‘how are you’ every day to my students. I consider it an honour.”
Niki is another in a series of young people I’ve written about who have made sacrifices not only to achieve their goals but also to make a lasting mark on the world. I was looking for the right words to describe why sharing the stories of these Millennials was important to me.
Then, an email arrived under the heading “Kids These Days”, from Rob Hatch, Owner Media. There it was, someone like me who wants to dispel the “bad rap” youth often get. Rob writes: “They are showing creativity and ingenuity. They are seeking out the experience, wisdom, and knowledge of older generations. They are demonstrating foresight in preparation for their future. They are delaying gratification, and the urge to spend hard-earned money, to save for a goal. I don’t know about you, but I find those traits admirable. I find these kids inspiring, and maybe one day, I’ll grow up to be more like them.”
Indeed, we all have a lot to learn from Millennials and Gen Zer’s. Some of them are really good teachers.