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Citizens have taken their concerns to the street in recent months with genders, races and generations turning out day after day in a loud demonstration of solidarity. Differences have become the foundation upon which people built trust, and the feeling of empathy among participants is palpable.

This sensation isn’t new to my students. Empathy, trust and listening are cornerstones of our classroom culture.

It is now more important than ever to teach students the power of empathy. The majority of students in the U.S. education system are now students of color. As classrooms become more diverse, we must be prepared to teach students how to interact and care for one another. Let’s not wait for marches and demonstrations to build along lines of differences, let’s start in each classroom.

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During our Monday meetings at Boston Pulse, a youth spoken-word program that I founded in Boston, youth poets sit in a processing circle, called a “Pulse Circle,” a term coined by one of my students. Together we share major events in our lives with one another to build understanding and empathy before we dive into the poetry itself.

I could see how, at first glance, some might see this as wasting time better spent on academics, but in my experience, investing in students’ social-emotional wellbeing is critical to their academic progress.

This human-first approach only makes it easier to learn, and opens students up to taking risks, accepting failure and ultimately achieving.

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Take for instance, a moment from one of these processing circles last week, when a student started off the meeting by sharing fear of his father’s release from prison. At first, I was perplexed at how this could evoke pain rather than joy. The student then shared that the few interactions he’d previously had with his father were all negative; he worried that this might resurface trauma in the household.

“Creating an empathetic space has allowed my students to take risks, challenge themselves, and fully participate in the messy process of learning.”

After hearing his story, other classmates opened up about their own experiences. This moment demonstrated to me that my students lean on each other for emotional support; in return, this translates into their ability to lean on each other for academic support.

Creating an empathetic space has allowed my students to take risks, challenge themselves and fully participate in the messy process of learning. Our classrooms should be empathetic spaces if our goal is to fully optimize each child’s learning potential.

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As educators, we can help students learn empathy using culturally responsive curriculum. Culturally responsive teaching is a practice that promotes a culture of high expectations, while also recognizing the cultural capital that students bring into the classroom. As student diversity increases, it becomes even more imperative that we tap into the richness of students’ experiences.

Social and emotional wellness is too often left out of the conversation on student achievement. Without a sense of safety in a classroom, we cannot reach our most vulnerable students.

As a teacher who deeply cares about his students’ academic and social-emotional wellbeing, I urge policymakers to invest in policies that ensure that all students more consistently experience culturally rich curriculum. I invite policymakers to join our classroom, and urge them to visit classrooms in urban communities to understand the needs of our students. In our diverse world, let’s listen deeply to each other, and work together to create education policies and practices through a lens of empathy.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

Tony DelaRosa is a teacher, and founder and executive director of Boston Pulse, a spoken-word program that educates and supports youth as they cultivate their voices, which empowers them to promote positive change for themselves and their communities. He is also a member of Educators for Excellence.

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