“Empathy not at the expense of ourselves.” 

When I discuss the characteristics of the #InnovatorsMindset, the first trait shared is that of “empathy” because it leads to all of the other ideas.

Looking at the image below, these characteristics are meant to be connected and not work in isolation.  For example, empathy is necessary if you want to be an effective problem finder AND solver to understand others’ needs and experiences better.  Creating those solutions involves taking risks and resiliency, and networking with others will only benefit the process.  To move forward, you have to be reflective of what you have learned and observant of the lessons around you in the present so that you can create opportunities in the future.  

All of the below ideas are connected, but I believe they all start with empathy.




The image and ideas of the “Innovator’s Mindset” should not be reserved for students and should be portrayed at the individual and organizational level of education.  When you look at the above characteristics regarding the Innovator’s Mindset, you notice that I see innovation as a human endeavor, not “innovation equals technology,” which is far too often portrayed in schools and learning. 

This is one of the reasons I really enjoyed the conversation I recently had with Naomi Toland on the idea of “Leading with Empathy.” 


There is one quote specifically that I want to dive into deeper that Naomi shared.



A question I have been sharing forever is, “Would you want to be a learner in your own classroom?”  This question is not meant to think of what a teacher would like in the classroom but to understand the classroom experience from a student’s perspective.  For example, I have discussed this student video from Liv McNeil as a way to have conversations about what school looked like during “Emergency Remote Teaching” at the end of the 2019-2020 school year:




It is a powerful video, and to be honest, it is hard to watch. I wouldn’t want that experience for my children nor any student.

But when you watch this, it could be turned into a “teacher guilt” type video very easily that the onus of the classroom experience is solely on the teachers, not as part of a partnership between the leadership, the school, and the district.  

This is why I also ask administrators, “Would you want to be a teacher on your staff?” or “Would you want to work in your organization?”

I have always tried to focus on doing what is best for kids, but it can’t be at the expense of the people who work closest to them.  Too often, education takes advantage of how much teachers are willing to do for students to the point of pushing people to burnout. 

Of course, we need to understand our students’ experience and create the best possible learning experiences possible, but as Naomi says, “Empathy not at the expense of ourselves.” 

I wrote the following in “Innovate Inside the Box“:



We aren’t likely to be innovative in jobs we hate or in which we don’t feel valued. We also cannot work with excellence if we don’t take care of ourselves physically and mentally. Compassion fatigue is legitimate, and, yes, you might be able to get far with it, but it will catch up. Understand that you and the relationships you create are the core of teaching and learning. Government initiatives, district initiatives, wherever initiatives, they will come and go, but people like you and me and our colleagues and students comprise the system.



We have to be advocates for our own well-being, but it is also imperative that administrators and schools advocate for the individual well-being of those they serve.  This doesn’t only mean initiatives for SEL for the adults, but being proactive about the problems that can easily lead to compassion fatigue. 

When I worked as a central office administrator, there were two things that I tried to do to address this.  




1. I tried to be in classrooms as much as possible to observe the environment the staff were working. For example, do you have to stand on a table to get the Wifi connection to your iPad?  Did the things we provided from the central office work easily, or were they seen as a hassle to the majority of staff?  How can we streamline the process to make teaching as easy as possible?

I have said this a million times, but no one should be making decisions for classrooms unless they are in those classrooms repeatedly.  

This leads to the second thing where I would focus.


2. I would often ask myself, “Is this creating more work for teachers, or taking things off their plate?”  An easy example of this is “Do they really need to fill out this survey for me to get data for my job?”  Or, “Can I come co-teach or model a session for staff instead of putting on an entire session about the idea?” 

I wasn’t 100% on either of these things, but I thought about them all of the time in my work. My focus was on innovation and moving education ahead, but you can’t really move ahead if you are constantly running on empty.  





We need to take care of those closest to our students.  As Naomi reminded me, “Empathy not at the expense of ourselves.”   





You can watch my entire podcast with Naomi on YouTube, or you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, or Spotify. We had a great discussion, and I share some pretty vulnerable stories, but I think that is what made it so interesting.



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