Ms. Lan taught Empathy


“How’s your class going, Lan?” – I started chatting as we’re sitting in a small ramen shop.

Lan slurped the ramen, eyes spacing out the window and wandering in a midst of thoughts. After a bite or two, she seemed to have found a story to illustrate what she was thinking.

“I have this one student in my Foundation Math 2000,” she said. “His perfectionism can turn mistakes into tears.”
Lan continued the story without me prompting any further questions. Her teacher’s instinct has taught her how to specify broad curiosities. She works with those every day. Students asks her why the homework was so difficult. Parents asks her how their kids were doing. Other colleagues, like me, asks her how classes were going. Lan doesn’t trust in the accuracy of one-word answers like “Ok” or “Fine”. She knows they are just other ways of saying “I don’t know.” Instead, she often responds with more specific questions, by which she can share the responsibility of finding the answers with others.

“That little boy,” Lan continued about her little perfectionist, “he has been crying in class over his own mistakes several times. I even had a long conversation with his mom about that issue.”

The mom told Lan that since she and her husband travelled for work, they’d left the kid at his grandparents’ house for several years before picking him up. Lack of intimate care and love made him lonely and yearn for attention more than others. He withdrew himself from friend groups at school and always sought for personal attention. After talking to his mom, Lan understood more about her student, but to draw out a solution for his problem, she said that she needed some time.

At E2, Lan’s learned that it took more than methods and logic to teach and manage a classroom. It required empathy. She knew it well that she could never fully understand what the kid was going through because it was his experience and his alone. And that was hard because all he wanted was for people to understand and feel what he was feeling, without having to explain it in detail.

One day in class, the boy couldn’t finish his assignment on time and had his like icon – which Lan used to mark each student’s improvement – taken away. He sobbed for a good fifteen minutes. It wasn’t the first time, and Lan felt like her heart would explode watching the kid suffer his failure. She came closer to the boy, sat down next to him and gently said.

“You can cry as long as you want. When you’re done, let’s talk.”

When the sob slacked, Lan looked into his eyes and asked. “I know you’re sad, but if you continue to cry like that, would you be able to finish your assignment?”

Silence swept in.

“If you don’t finish the assignment, would you get the like icon?” Lan continued.

“No,” the boy replied; his voice was little more than a murmur.

“Crying won’t help you improve and won’t fix your problems. From now on, instead of crying over a mistake, why don’t you just work harder next time?” Lan said. “I just want you to know that you’re a good student. And I don’t judge you based on comparison with others. I look at your own progress. You climbing higher day by day is what makes me happy, not you passing others.”

The boy, still catching breath after the sob, hesitantly lifted up his hands to sweep away some tears sticking on his cheeks.

“Now, do you want to cry some more or work on your assignment?” Lan asked, hoping for some cooperation.

“Work on my assignment.” The boy replied.

Lan paused the story and picked up her chopsticks. Savoring both the ramen and her memory, she let out a deep sigh.

“I don’t know if he absorbed all my words, but he’s been calmer lately.” She said. “I just want him to know that I understand and care for him.”

Lan wanted her students to always know that they are loved. The things they’ve seen, the lessons they’ve learned, and even the mistakes they’ve made help shape who they are. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to laugh. It’s okay to just be as long as they learn something. Lan believed it is her responsibility to show them how to learn from being themselves.

Empathy is feeling with someone else. It’s reminding people that they aren’t alone. As a teacher, Lan might not be able to physically be there for her students or respond to their questions day by day, but whenever in class, she feels and walks with them on every step.

“The truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” – Brene Brown.


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