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    Empathy Matters

    At this year’s U.S. Democratic National Party Convention, empathy took centre stage as former vice-president Joe Biden accepted his party’s nomination to be its candidate for president of the United States.  Each of his endorsers touted Biden’s “ability to connect with what someone else is feeling and pointed to that characteristic as making him uniquely qualified to lead the country, particularly during a time of crisis like the coronavirus pandemic” (Merica, 2020,  para 2).  Words like honesty, humility, empathy, and grace were heard from many of the convention speakers, including U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren and former President Barack Obama, both of whom know something about achieving change during a crisis.

    While introducing my first-year fall 2018 EDUC 1199 Teaching and Learning (Part One) students to various perspectives on the year one classroom observation field experience, we heard Ms. Bridget Russo, a retired principal in the Windsor-Essex Catholic District School Board say something that I have shared with each of my classes since. The question posed to the panel was this: “What advice do you have for first-year Concurrent Education students as they embark on their first field experience?”  Ms. Russo said, “show empathy.”  She reflected that of all the things that students bring to their field experience, the most important is empathy.  With it, so much can be accomplished.  Without it, nearly nothing can be achieved.

    These two events, while vastly different, point to the importance of empathy in our time.  But what is empathy and why is it so important?

    The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as

    “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”

    Sometimes there can be confusion between empathy and compassion.  Compassion refers broadly to sympathetic understanding, while empathy is the ability to relate to another person’s pain as if one has experienced that pain themselves.  It involves seeing their world, appreciating them as human beings, communicating understanding, and understanding feelings (Sahota and Lewitz, 2014).

    So, in the case of the crises currently facing the U.S., empathy would be the ability to relate to being a victim of the coronavirus or racial inequality.  In the case of teacher candidates attending their first field experience, empathy would be the ability to connect with students in or near the classroom setting, some of whom are experiencing significant challenges while others are impacted by various barriers to their own learning.

    As the doors to the academy open this week, let me suggest that each of us reach deep within our hearts, minds, and souls to find empathy for all those we meet.  Each of us faces our own challenges, and it is so important that those we come in contact understand a little of what each of us is going through.

    The Avatar (2009) film captures this well when Neytiri says to Jake and Jake says to Neytiri “I see you.”  This means when you see me you bring me into existence. 

    I’ve got to think that by seeing the people we meet, we can make a difference in their lives and in our lives too.

    So, empathy really matters!


    Merica, D. (2020, April 15).  ‘Empathy matters’: Joe Biden’s endorsers highlight the same trait.  CNN Politicshttps://www.cnn.com/2020/04/15/politics/joe-biden-empathy/index.html

    Sahota, M., & Lewitz, O. (2014).  Co-aching: How to use compassion to transform your effectiveness.  Agile Alliance Conference, Orlando, FL.

    One Tree Does not Make a Forest

    Reciprocal Learning Program alumni with program sponsors and co-directors Dr. Shijing Xu, University of Windsor, and Dr. Michael Connelly, University of Toronto

    Last week, I had the pleasure of attending the 6th Annual International Conference on West-East Reciprocal Learning in Education held at the University of Windsor. It was a spectacular event!

    Reflecting on the event, co-director Dr. Shijing Xu, said “one tree does not make a forest.” By this she meant that it takes many partners to achieve success. And what a success it has been.

    A true Canada-China partnership

    Statistics tell us that 233 students from Southwest University in Chongqing, China and 100 students from the University of Windsor have participated in the joint Reciprocal Learning Program that sees teacher candidates travel to China or Canada to experience the way teaching is done in another country, and to take in a little culture.

    I can remember when it all started 10 years ago. Drs. Xu and Connelly were so hopeful. They believed that a peaceful world could be created by getting to know each other better.

    The alumni couldn’t agree more. David Potocek said it was “stepping out of our comfort zone.” Taylor Paré agreed by saying we were “voices heard around the world” and “no matter where in the world you find yourself, its all about getting a child to smile at you.”

    Last week we remembered. And now it is time to ensure that more teacher candidates in China and Canada benefit from this outstanding program. Let’s continue planting more trees!

    -Clayton Smith

    Dr. Smith along with presenters and volunteers at the 6th Annual International Conference on West-East Reciprocal Learning in Education Conference.

    Ireland Take-Aways

    While in Ireland last week, I became aware of the concept of “take-aways” rather than the North American term “to-go,” and so I thought I would reflect on a few take-aways from our recent, mostly sunny, trip to Ireland.

    Dr. Smith presenting the results of the international student teaching study to the Ireland International Conference on Education, 2019
    Dr. Smith presenting the results of the international student teaching study to the Ireland International Conference on Education, 2019

    Let me start with my reason for visiting the emerald isle.

    I had the pleasure of presenting a paper on some research my research team has recently completed on “Connecting Best Practices for Teaching Linguistically and Culturally-Diverse International Students with International Student Satisfaction and Student Perceptions of Learning” at the Ireland International Conference on Education, which was held in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, a short distance from Dublin.  It was well received and left me reflecting on how I might collaborate with researchers in other countries on this topic.  So many are interested in learning more about how we might provide a student voice in our research on the practices for teaching international students.

    This is a small conference (about 100 participants) that left me with a developing network of research colleagues from around the world–all with an interest in enhancing education within the post-secondary education sector.  Here are a few highlights:

    • Gabriel-Miro Muntean, from Dublin City University spoke about the EU Horizon 2020 NEWTON Project’s use of innovative technologies and enhanced learning methods and tools to create or inter-connect existing state-of-the-art teaching labs and to build a pan-European learning network platform to encourage more students to consider STEM careers.  While only a few years in, it shows great potential for turning on a new generation or STEM scientists and practitioners.
    • Michael Plummer, from MAPco Education Consultant Group, shared a bit about misguided public criticism of education, and special education in particular.  Findings from his study revealed that there is a continuing lack of knowledge by the public on the issues around special education.  He also said “You can teach about the profession, but you cannot teach someone how to be a teacher.  Teaching is a complex art, and not everyone can do it.”  Very powerful stuff.  Really made me think about the individual characteristics that contribute to inspired teaching.
    • Deborah Patterson and Susan Carlile, from Portland State University, intrigued us with a session called “Nags, Bitches and Beauties: Women in Leadership” in which they shared the challenges facing women leaders, and recommended development of formal and informal mentoring program, use of a network of support within and outside the organization, and increased training for allies.  I have seen many of these challenges first hand, and was impressed with their body of research.  Hopefully, it will lead to action in the academy to enhance the way we support women along the way to leadership roles.
    • Adam Unwin, from University College London, spoke about some themes from his book with John Yandell, Rethinking Education: Whose Knowledge is it Anyway?  In particular Unwin stressed the challenges associated with the impact of Neoliberal measurement approaches, which have done a lot to “deform the landscape of schooling”  in the United Kingdom.  It made me reflect on how we can address this approach as the Ontario Government pushes performance funding within the post-secondary sector in the next several years.  He even gave me a copy of his book!

    But you can’t just go to Ireland for work, so we also took in some of the sights.

    We toured the Wicklow Mountains, otherwise known locally as the Dublin Mountains, which borders the counties of Dublin, Wexford, and Carlow.  Of course, they really are not mountains.  Our tour guide told us at 561 meters, they are not tall enough to be mountains.  But are they ever beautiful and mountain-like!

    Wicklow Mountains, Ireland

    We also visited the western part of the country and took in side trips to Cliffs of Moher and the City of Galway.  The Cliffs of Moher are really impressive.  They stretch eight kilometers, reaching a height of 214 meters, with a vista embracing the Aran Islands.  Almost thought I was in Newfoundland.  The warm–we were told they are not always warm–winds whipping across the landscape took us back to the Harry Potter films, one of which was filmed here.

    Cliffs of Moher, Ireland
    Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

    Galway is wonderful.  Full of cultural charm, with lots of shopping and, of course, more restaurants and pubs than one can count.

    Then there is Dublin itself.  So much history with the experience of nationhood so near the surface of many conversations.  Some of what tops the list include Dublin Castle, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church, the National Museum of Ireland, St. Stephen’s Green, Trinity College, and the huge Phoenix Park that includes the Dublin Zoo, home to some very famous lions.

    Our tour guides (two of the three were named John) used a wonderful style of speaking that I think I will try to use more in my teaching.  Basically, they introduced what we would do, then told a story or two about what we would see, and then summarized before moving on to a new slice of the tour.  Then, at the end, they shared some of the highlights.  While it may be something that is just present in the Irish approach to interpersonal communications, it really worked, and was enjoyed by everyone.

    Perhaps our true take-aways centre on the people, including the colleagues we met at the conference along with the native Irish we came to embrace through our travels in this breath-taking land.

    I think we will be coming back.

    Clayton Smith




    Finding the ePortfolio Magic

    This year, I began teaching and advising first- and second-year students in our Concurrent Education program.  This program allows students to earn two bachelor degrees in five years, one in an academic major, and the other in education.  Education courses are taught in each year of the program.

    One of the outcomes early on in this program is the creation of an educational portfolio or ePortfolio.

    Students document their learning throughout the program using an ePortfolio.  When finished, they will have an ePortfolio that shows how they meet the Ontario College of Teachers’ (OCT) professional standards.  It will also contain their teaching philosophy, and resume/cv.  Rather than the customary cover letter, an ePortfolio helps students to present a bit of themselves in a visually appealing format.  This is something that is becoming an essential part of the process of becoming a professional teacher.

    But it is much more than that.

    I know this because I created my own ePortfolio.  In it, you will find this blog, as well as other blogs I have written on teaching and related topics.  You will also see that my focus is on teaching and research in a postsecondary educational setting, and so it has a slightly different feel than what my students are doing.  I thought it was important that I develop one so that I would know some of the challenges in creating an ePortfolio.  I also wanted to experience some of the fun too!

    What I learned along the way is magical.

    While much of what students do is to assemble artifacts (e.g., photos, documents, videos) that show how they meet the OCT professional standards.  The magic arrives when they write reflections about these artifacts and share how they use them in their teaching.

    Teachers, like most professionals, are all about doing.

    They prepare lesson plans, design courses, conduct student assessments, lecture, and facilitate student learning in lots of wonderful ways.  They are, put simply, busy with the practice of their craft.

    What we are learning, however, is that the practice of reflective thought is essential for teachers to grow as educators, and to ensure they connect with their students.

    Well-written ePortfolios include a reflective bit of writing (usually a paragraph or two) for each artifact.  It is in writing reflections that students take a deep dive into their values, ethics, and ways of knowing that support their teaching.  I am greatly enjoying reading the ePortfolios my students are creating.

    This helped me understand what I have achieved with my teaching.  It also helped me to establish some goals for where I want my teaching to go.  Most importantly, it allowed me the freedom to dream about why I teach and how I help to make the world a little bit better by “teaching for learning.”

    Magical indeed!

    Clayton Smith