The Power of Empathy

Ask any teacher, and they’ll tell you that empathy is incredibly difficult to teach. Its lack is unfortunately evident in our schools and classrooms as children defined as outside of the norm by their peers continue to be bullied and harassed to the point of poor attendance, at best, or suicide, at the absolute worst. It is not only children who suffer this lack, although the manner in which adults express it tends to be more subtle. While children may taunt, adults scratch their heads. They question and wonder. They simply have trouble believing that an experience that they have avoided by either chance or design for a lifetime could be someone else’s everyday reality.

Dyslexia is a reality for one in five individuals. It is a fact, and one that is not only identifiable, but medically diagnosable. It can be destructive and demeaning. I have seen children do everything from clowning to crying in order to avoid reading. I once told a mother that watching her sweet daughter try to read was like watching a hand curl into a fist. Students with dyslexia are often so taxed by reading that they are exhausted after even a couple of brief paragraphs, the same way that an athlete might be after a long game or run or match. It is that hard for them. And while our goal is to remediate dyslexia through sound instructional practices and scientifically-based intervention to the point where a child won’t shudder when asked to read, that is not always the result that we see.

Reading is work. It is not one process, but a cascade of processes meant to work efficiently behind the scenes. The fact is that even non-dyslexic brains are working when we read, even when we are blissfully unaware of the effort. Readers with dyslexia are not so lucky. The work of reading is evident to them, every time that they read. Whether it’s a name, a sign, an instruction, a math problem, a poem, a paper, a paragraph, or a screen: it’s all work. Teach them something orally, and they might pick it up with ease. Ask them instead to read to learn, and you’ve put them at an immediate disadvantage. Even if dyslexia were only comprised of the familiar letter reversals that most people think of, and it is not, try to imagine what that would be like, every day, every time that you read: is that an n or a u, a p or a q, a b or a d?

Dyslexia remediation and intervention are not fruitless efforts, and I don’t mean to suggest that they are. What I am suggesting is that we start each lesson, each day, with empathy. Because if we don’t believe, deeply and sincerely, that dyslexia is real, then what are we saying to our students? That they should try harder? Study more? Stop being so lazy? Sadly, they’ve already heard these comments, and too many more like them, from underinformed parents, educators, and peers. What they need from us are the tools to climb, day after day, imposing mountains of text. We must acknowledge their struggle, and name it. To do so is a gift, whether or not we can diminish it at all or if it continues to hurt when they read.

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