I love math because it is plainly and objectively true, and the plain truth is beautiful. I love science and social studies and reading and writing for much the same reason — learning is its own reward.

From the beginning, I went into teaching because I believe in the power of wonder and the value of discovery. I always will — but the last few months have reminded us all that there are things more important than knowledge.

Our most important task as teachers is—and always has been—to help our students become people who live noble lives. It doesn’t matter how much they know if they don’t have the courage of character to use it for good. We’ve paid lip service to this reality, but as a profession, our actions don’t match up; we spend far more time helping our students get ready for financial success than for selflessness and sacrifice.

These Current Crises

Crises provide clarity, and today we have them in abundance. They’ve shown us that empathy is the lifeblood of society; only when it abounds can we thrive.

In the middle of our pandemic, empathy compelled us to inconvenience ourselves for the safety of others. Some people—most people—did this grudgingly but well. Others fell into shoddy and selfish thinking, and exposed themselves and others to unnecessary risk. Empathy demanded that those privileged enough to continue to live in comfort make sacrifices for those who suffered. Many did — but charitable giving fell to an all-time low..

As Americans take to the streets to protest police brutality and the death of George Floyd, empathy demands that those privileged not to suffer from racial discrimination listen to the voices of those who have — and that honorable people of all backgrounds work to promote justice through concrete policies and practices. It demands that those of us with much to learn do the work of listening and learning. And it demands that we do what we can to help communities that are suffering in the aftermath of violence.

The actions inspired by empathy are sustained by persistence. Our nation’s collective attention span has been shrinking and it is easy to perform simple and short-term actions that assuage our consciences before we move back to the habits of selfish living. If something was virtuous yesterday, it will be virtuous in September. People and businesses will still be struggling to get back on their feet. There will still be racial injustice to fight. There will still be good to be done; let’s commit in concrete ways to persevere.

Individual actions can be a ray of light in the darkness— but as educators, we have the potential to do more. As teachers, our actions ripple into the broader society.

Make that commitment today. Commit to focus less on test scores than on tolerance, less on exams than on empathy. I say this, again, as a firm believer in the power of knowledge, but also as someone who knows enough to realize that the world needs more than knowledge.

How can you do it?

Literature cultivates empathy. Great books allow us to see the world through other eyes. This shapes our character; how much wiser would our leaders be if each of them had read Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry?

Relationships take time — but connecting your students with people who are different than they are is the best way to cultivate understanding. Connect your class with diverse friends, whether they’re seniors, veterans, classrooms on the other side of the world. 

Build your instruction on acts of service. Start with the heart of projects that make the world a better place; and empower your students to make a positive difference. You can always integrate academic content into rich projects, and that matters. But academic content isn’t the most important thing. The most essential thing is to live noble lives; I hope you find ways to show your students this one essential thing. If you’d like to explore how to bring this to life with your students, I’d love to join you on your journey.

We hope you are all staying healthy and safe during this difficult time. For more free educational resources, or ideas on how to promote healthy SEL, simply follow this link!

*Today’s image is brought to you by Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry? by by Mildred D. Taylor. Get your copy today.