I was sitting in my economics class in high school, it was finals week. This class was a college credit for me so it was important that I did well. I studied the material and came prepared to get a good grade on my test, I knew the content and was prepared to show it.
My teacher walked around the quiet room passing out the tests. He placed a one on my desk, and then put his hand on my shoulder.
“You seem anxious,” he whispered, “Do you want to take this test in the resource room where you can sit in a quiet corner and focus better? It may help your anxiety.”
Right away, I started to panic, was I anxious? Did I need a quiet room to test in? I was confident in my testing ability before, but this went out the window faster than my thoughts could finish processing. He told me I was anxious, so obviously I was.
I truly know that my teacher meant well and that he never wanted to cause me more harm or anxiety. He was looking out for me, as well as other students, and tried feeling empathy and create genuine relationships with his students in order to teach us how we needed to be taught.
But this experience made me think a lot about labeling a child’s emotions for them versus feeling empathy. What’s the difference?
Labeling emotions is telling kids what they are feeling before they have the chance to tell you what they are feeling.
Feeling empathy is giving a child the chance to process their own emotions, tell you what they are feeling, and then helping them feel those emotions.
Emotions must be taught and understood so that students can label their feelings themselves before we create unnecessary labels for them, even if we are doing it out of the goodness of our hearts.
Looking back on my experience of having a teacher label my emotions, I have thought many times about what a better approach might have been for him to take.
Instead, he could have said: “How are you feeling about this test?” and waited to hear if I was confident, or worried.
He could have also given me affirmation about my testing ability by saying, “I know you have worked hard in this class and to study for this test, especially when you came in during lunch to ask further questions on material you didn’t understand. You will do great.”
It was a learning moment for me to watch what I was saying to my own students so that they can feel and process their own emotions, instead of me placing the burden of what I thought they were feeling on them.
It took time, practice, and dedicated effort, but the results were worth it.
What do you do to make sure you are genuinely feeling empathy instead of labeling emotions in your students?