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Empathetic Skills and School Libraries: Critical for Both Students and Librarians.

As a beginning teacher in the 1970s, I found teaching literature and writing skills to a large and largely disinterested group of students less than satisfying. Long before the days of "personalized learning," I was expected to teach to the whole class using an approved textbook. No matter what methods I used, most 16-year-olds simply didn't find much relevance in Macbeth or 1984 or "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

As a librarian, I found my niche--I was still a teacher, but I was able to focus on finding one resource to meet the needs of one student at a time. Getting to know students individually, I became a more empathetic and effective educator. I learned how to help individual students combine their personal interests with classroom assignments. (You love horses? How about writing your history term paper on how horses were used in World War II?)

I've been thinking a lot lately about why students need to acquire empathy in order to be successful--and why librarians need to develop it also. In nearly every occupation, the ability to understand the needs and concerns of others is a vital skill in order to be effective. Does separating successful from unsuccessful used-car salesmen, politicians, social workers, and physicians come down to being effectively empathetic? Are empathetic librarians more likely to be successful as well?


After reading Pink's A Whole New Mind (2005), I've been pondering empathy as a teachable/developable skill and considering how reading builds empathetic understandings. Pink lists six right-brain senses needed for success in the "Conceptual Age," one of which is empathy. "What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others" (p. 66).

What is surprising, however, is not what empathy is but rather what it is not. Here are a few synthesized "myths of empathy":

* Empathy is a value. Aberman (2013) states that empathy is a tool like reading, writing, or computer literacy, not a value. While it may sound counterintuitive, empathy is not always used in positive ways. One can use empathy to manipulate others as well as to help them. As a tool, empathy can be sharpened through practice.

* Empathy is a weakness--it's the same as being a pushover. Far from it. Those who have learned to understand the feelings and motivations of others actually have a tremendous advantage in any relationship; for example, knowing what buttons to push could make a sibling really angry.

* Empathy is only emotional. Moran (2013) writes that there are three types of empathy: cognitive empathy is sensing how other people feel and what they might be thinking; emotional empathy is responding to others on an emotional basis; and compassionate empathy causes people to help those around them. Too often empathy and sympathy are used syn onymously, but they are quite different (Henry, 2013).

* Empathy means sharing others' values, not disagreeing with them. Not at all. One can understand another's values and points of view and respect their conclusions but not agree with them. A person can be empathetic and still try to persuade others to change their minds.

* Empathy is a natural attribute--you have it or you don't. Many writers, including Costa in Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind (2008), combine empathy and listening as interdependent skills. Helping people become better listeners can help them be more empathetic.

* Empathy is an attribute of followers rather than leaders. Covey (1989) writes, "Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply" (p. 251). Highly effective people, especially leaders, actually listen in order to lead more effectively.

* Empathy is only necessary when trying to understand what others are saying. If one wants to "sell" others on an idea, a project, or a value, one must understand that the WIIFM (What's in It for Me) criteria has to be met to make the sale. And one has to understand others' needs in order to offer a meaningful WIIFM argument. Pink (2012) calls this "perspective-taking," and it is essential in influencing others (p. 72).

Empathy has intrinsic value. It makes us better human beings, adds richness to our lives, and simply makes the world a better place to live. But education, it often seems, has become wholly oriented toward vocational/ academic training. So educators must revert to subversiveness, reassuring parents and politicians that empathy is a "business skill," a "21st-century skill," a "leadership skill."

Martinuzzi (n.d.) gives an overview of various studies showing that empathy correlates "with increased sales, with the performance of the best managers of product development teams, and with enhanced performance in an increasingly diverse workforce. "

Is empathy an essential skill for surviving and thriving in today's economy? Educational psychologist and empathy expert Borba (2018) writes, "In today's interconnected world, empathy gives students the edge they need to lead meaningful, productive lives, providing what I call the 'empathy advantage.' Once seen as a 'soft' skill, empathy helps us understand and feel with others" (p. 22). School library professional associations agree. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standards for Students states, "Students use collaborative technologies to work with others, including peers, experts or community members, to examine issues and problems from multiple viewpoints. Learners of other cultures . . . use multiple processes and diverse perspectives to explore alternative solutions" (ISTE, 2016).

The American Association of School Librarians (AASL) Standards Framework for Learners includes, "Learners demonstrate empathy and equity in knowledge building with the global learning community by 1 Seeking interactions with a range of learners; 2. Demonstrating interest in other perspectives during learning activities; 3. Reflecting on their own place within the global learning community", (AASL, 2018b, p. 4).

The unsung hero of many a successful enterprise is empathy. Understanding the needs and desires of others is critical for salesmen, politicians, lotharios, preachers, CEOs, writers, teachers, consultants . . . well, just about everybody. The better one understands others, the more effective one can meet their needs, appeal to their self-interests, or manipulate them.

With a global economy, our empathy needs to extend beyond the next-door neighbor. Multiculturalism and global awareness simply means understanding, not necessarily accepting, the values, motives, and priorities of unfamiliar cultures.

The question is, then, can empathy be learned--and how? Is there a small muscle somewhere in the mind or soul that can be exercised, stretched, and built that allows individuals to more fully place themselves in others' shoes? Or sandals? Or moccasins? Or bare feet?


A group of Toronto researchers have compiled a body of evidence showing that bookworms have exceptionally strong people skills.... Their years of research [have] shown readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who read non-fiction texts. (Mick, 2008, n.p.)

The quote above comes from a fascinating article about how reading fiction builds social skills and empathy. As librarians, we may have more opportunities than most educators to help students build their empathetic skills. Such supportive practices for students include,

* Emphasizing literature representative of unfamiliar settings/experiences. Reading fiction--especially when the setting is another culture, another time--has to be the best means of building empathetic sensibilities. How does someone understand prejudice if not part of a group subject to discrimination? How can a straight individual understand the problems faced by gays? Can one feel hungry, orphaned, or terrified through only a middle-class perspective? By harnessing the detail, drama, emotion, and immediacy of "story," fiction informs the heart as well as the mind. And it is the heart that causes the mind to empathize. Viewing the world through the eyes of a narrator completely unlike oneself draws into sharp detail the differences of experience but also the similarities of the narrator and reader. And it is by linking oneself through similarities--common human traits--that one comes to see beyond stereotypes.

* Promoting service learning and volunteer opportunities. Working with others, especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, is a powerful means of exposing students to the realities of others' lives. Whether working at a food pantry, tutoring struggling students, or coaching sports teams, volunteering gives human faces to issues and problems students read about in the newspapers but only consider in abstraction. Knowing a hungry child is a different experience than reading statistics about food insecurity. Service projects of all types, both nationally and internationally, are empathy builders.

* Fostering opportunities for involvement in theater productions. Acting and role-playing ask the student to not only act like another person but also think like another human being. It is not just what a character might say but the how and why that make acting a powerful means of getting inside another's head. Sharing literature through reading aloud, readers' theater, or other forms of dramatization increases the likelihood the reader assumes the identity of the characters in the work.

* Requiring group projects and collaboration. Often frustrating for high-achieving students, group projects can force project participants, especially leaders, to use empathetic understanding to motivate others. "Selling" others on the advantages of participation, looking for useful strengths in team members, and acknowledging the ideas of others are abilities that can be used throughout one's life--and all call for empathy to be practiced.

* Promoting intercultural and cross-socioeconomic collaboration. Technology has opened lines of communication and collaboration to unlimited places and cultures. Today's students can develop empathetic skills by working with students in other schools and in other countries. Programs like Flat Connections ( and One Globe Kids ( help educators coordinate projects with students internationally, building understanding between cultures.


AASL's National School Library Standards (2018a) states, "The school library builds empathy and equity by encouraging members of the learning community to access information and ideas in a current, multi-format resource collection and by providing communications opportunities and academic and social support" (p. 81).

Using, managing, and directing libraries in a 40+ year professional career, have come to believe that empathetic librarians are more likely to have successful library programs than those lacking in empathy. An empathetic librarian will:

* Make and enforce policies and procedures that honor student needs rather than institutional needs. The best library circulation policies are flexible rather than punitive. Use methods other than fines to encourage responsible materials use. Give the benefit of the doubt that materials may be lost or damaged. Students can "work off" a fine or payment for lost items. Let students check out materials even if they have overdues. Be generous rather than restrictive with student circulation, operating under an abundance rather than scarcity mindset (Johnson, 2017).

* Base behavioral rules on the needs of students, not the librarian. The best library behavior rules have at their heart an understanding of how individual behaviors may impact the learning opportunities of other students. A simple statement of this empathy-based philosophy is, "Your behavior must be such that other students can also learn." Rules related to the care of materials should state that if materials are available and in good condition, they can then be used by other students.

* Offer a collection that reflects multi cultural resources and a broad range of political views. Materials should reflect unfamiliar lives and situations if students are to become more empathetic through reading. Most selection policies state that collections should include fiction and nonfiction resources that represent diverse political, cultural, and religious beliefs and values.

* Encourage personal choice and individual interests in research assignments and required readings. When librarians link student assignments to personal interest, academic work becomes more meaningful. If that science project, history paper, or language arts writing assignment is to be engaging and have long-term educational impact, the subject must be topical, local, or personal.

* Encourage collaborative projects in which effectiveness is a learning outcome. Helping students learn to work with others, especially using active listening strategies, may be as important to career success as understanding the topic being studied. The most academically talented students can be those who are most frustrated with group work: "Why do / seem to have to do all the work!" Coaching these students on empathetic leadership skills can be especially valuable to them.

* Listen to and incorporate teacher needs in unit planning I collaboration. It is not just students' needs that are met through empathetic understandings but teachers' needs as well. Librarians must know the learning outcomes of the unit they are asked to collaborate on. Consideration of the teacher's successes and frustrations when teaching the unit in prior years can provide insight. Discuss/set clear expectations with the teacher regarding participation in the unit. Set aside some time to examine the effectiveness of the collaboration when the unit is completed.

* Give others the benefit of the doubt and view the whole child in providing services. "I looked everywhere for my book and just couldn't find it anywhere." "My brother accidentally spilled orange juice on this audio player." "I'd like to use the library's computer to look information about this game since we don't have a computer at home." What might sound like a reason to one listener might sound like an excuse to another. Empathetic educators always assume that children have good intentions when it comes to their behavior. Many children have living conditions that are extremely challenging; adding to the stress of their lives by holding every student accountable for inflexible standards of service and behavior is not empathetic.

* Be available and accessible to students and staff. One of the best signs I ever saw on a librarian's desk read, "YOU are not an interruption." An empathetic librarian must be available to those being served. The librarian's desk should be in the library, not in an office behind closed doors. Verbal tone and body language should make all who approach feel welcome.

* Honor not just reading levels but personal interests when providing reader services. Too many teachers and librarians allow students to check out only materials from a specific range of reading levels. While many classroom teachers require this, circulation policies should be generous enough to make it possible for students to check out both books of specific reading levels and books of personal interest. Remember, the goal is for graduates to not just know how to read but to find intrinsic value in reading, so they continue to do so.

* Use a collaborative means of problem-solving and program development. The empathetic librarian acknowledges that students have a role in problem-solving, program development, and policy creation. One of my student library club's tasks was to identify problems in the library and then formulate creative solutions. (Library problem: Computers are too often used by gamers, so they are not available to those who need them for school work. Student solution: No gaming for the first ten minutes of availability. If a computer is not then being used, it can be used for personal rather than school purposes.) This was an empathetic approach I may not have devised myself.

* Base the library advocacy message on the needs of users, not the needs of the librarian. Library advocacy should be called library user advocacy. Regardless of what one is asking for (funds, staffing, program changes, etc.), the request should always be in the context of why this is important and necessary for those who use the library--not the librarian.

* Consider all problems worthy of attention, no matter how seemingly minor. No technology problem is small to the person who is having that problem. An inaccessible internet site, the inability to print, or a misaligned interactive whiteboard might seem like a small problem to those who deal with schoolwide issues of access, security, and appropriate use. But to the students or teachers who are having the "small" problems that keep them from completing a task, they can loom very large indeed. Librarians need to have the empathetic ability to see the problem through their eyes--and use that ability.

As I look back on being involved in school libraries as a graduate student, practitioner, supervisor, adjunct professor, and writer/consultant, the skill sets most emphasized have been hard skills: information-literacy, technology, materials selection, ethics, program planning and evaluation, communications, and knowledge of literature, among others. Unfortunately, empathy was rarely, if ever, discussed.


As school budgets are stretched, school library funds that are used to purchase quality fiction and school library professionals who select and promote quality fiction are too easily axed, replaced by reading programs, specialists, and tests of basic comprehension. Projects that are multicultural and require teamwork are pushed aside for test preparation.

Politicians and educational leaders rarely ask: If one can read but is not changed by reading, why bother? Empathy is an ability that is difficult to objectively measure. As a result, many educators simply ignore it, like they do too many affective skills. It's essential that librarians fight for library programs and budgets, so it is possible to both teach and model empathy.

Atticus Finch in Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) gave this advice to his young daughter, "If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it" (p. 39).

It's perhaps fitting that those of us who have experienced Lee's book have indeed had the quotient for empathy increased by reading it.


Aberman, J. (2013, November 3). Morality, capitalism and empathy. Huffington Post Tech. Retrieved from http://

American Association of School Libraries (AASL). (2018a). National school library standards for learners, school librarians, and school libraries. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions.

American Association of School Libraries (AASL). (2018b). Standards framework for learners. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions.

Borba, M. (2018, October). Nine competencies for teaching empathy. Educational Leadership. Retrieved from vol76/num02/Nine-Competencies-for-Teaching-Empathy. aspx

Costa, A. (2008). Learning and leading with habits of mind: 16 essential characteristics for success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Covey, S. (1989). Seven habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Henry, A. (2013, December 23). This video explains the difference between empathy and sympathy. Lifehacker. Retrieved from this-video-explains-the-difference-between-empathy-and-1487494909

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). (2016). ISTE standards for students. Retrieved from

Johnson, D. (2017, September 1). The signs of an abundance mindset in libraries. Blue Skunk Blog. Retrieved from http://doug-johnson.squarespace. com/blue-skunk-blog/2017/9/1/ the-signs-of-an-abundance-mindsetin-libraries.html

Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott.

Martinuzzi, B. (n.d.). Empathy and leadership. Mindtools. Retrieved from https: 11

Mick, H. (2008, July 10). Socially awkward? Hit the books. Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail. com / life / socially-awkwardhit-the-books/article 1212556/

Moran, M. (2013, March 20). Empathy: Leadership strength or weakness? Modern DC Business. Retrieved from html

Pink, D. (2005). A whole new mind: Why right brainers will rule the future. New York, NY: Riverhead, 2005.

Pink, D. (2012). To sell is human: The surprising truth about moving others. New York, NY: Riverhead.

Doug Johnson is the recently retired director of technology for the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage (MN) Public Schools. His teaching experience has included work in grades K-12. He is the author of nine books, columns in Educational Leadership and Library Media Connection, the Blue Skunk Blog, and articles published in more than 40 books and periodicals. Doug has worked with over 200 organizations around the world and has held leadership positions in state and national organizations, including International Society for Technology in Education and American Association of School Libraries.
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Johnson, Doug
Publication:Teacher Librarian
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2019
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