Podcast S2. Ep 16: Cultivating Empathy In Our Schools - Barbara Gruener - CS Presenter

Character Strong · October 9, 2019

Barbara Gruener thrives on positively influencing change, passionately helping people create caring connections, and intentionally improving a school's climate and culture. Her innovative and inspirational ideas are sparked by 34 years as a Spanish teacher and school counselor growing alongside students from every age and stage, Pre-K through 12th grade. A connected educator, Barbara loves leading supercharged character-development growth sessions with students, parents, teachers and administrators. Her book, What’s Under Your Cape? SUPERHEROES of the Character Kind, earned a Mom's Choice Gold Award for supporting caregivers with stories and strategies to use as they help develop character strengths in young people in school and at home. Though she grew up on a dairy farm in WI, Barbara and her family now call Friendswood, TX, home.

We talk with Barbra about how empathy gives kindness its why, how we can make kindness last, and she shares some ways that we can cultivate empathy in our schools.


“... we're embracing the feeling that goes with wherever they are in their journey that day. So that heart piece, just embracing, I like to call it a heartset. I'm not sure that's really even a word, but heartset seems to work. Mindset, heartset, now here comes the skillset. Once I get that empathy piece and I can mobilize it, then I can start putting my kindness into action. I can embrace that burden, I can feel it, I can care for it, and then I have the skillset. I use my hands to go back to what my head knows, to go back to what my heart feels. Now I use my hands to try to make a difference.”

— Barbara Gruener

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong Podcast, where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Barbara Gruener. Barbara Gruener thrives on positively influencing change, passionately helping people create caring connections and intentionally improving a school's climate and culture. Her innovative and inspirational ideas are sparked by 34 years as a Spanish teacher and school counselor, growing alongside students from every age and stage. Pre-K through 12th grade.
  • John: A connected educator, Barbara loves leading supercharged character development growth sessions with students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Her book, What's Under Your Cape? Superheroes of the Character Kind, earned a Mom's Choice Gold Award for supporting caregivers with stories and strategies to use as they helped develop character strengths in young people in school and at home. Though she grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, Barbara and her family now call Friendswood, Texas home.
  • John: Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Barbara Gruener.
  • John: All right, well, this is such a treat for me today to have Barbara Gruener on the CharacterStrong Podcast. You got to interview me once, but now I get to interview you, my friend.
  • Barbara: Yay. The tables are turned and I'm loving it.
  • John: I love it. Well, you are a force. You are such a force for good in this world and I have learned so much from you. Yet we get to partner with this great work and you do so many different things supporting schools, and have done so for so many years. Yet, you also have been such a great blessing to us and going to the schools and working with educators. So, I just want to dig into your experience on something that is incredibly important right now, but can seem so simple.
  • John: I just want you to dig right into it. We're going to cut the fluff, get right to the stuff. That is empathy. Let's talk about empathy today and I want to learn from you. So if I just said the topic, Barbara, is empathy, let's start with that. Let's talk about it.
  • Barbara: Okay, yeah, cut the fluff. Let's get to it. Empathy. The number one thing that I think we need in our schools today, because we talk about kindness all day long. But you know, John, empathy gives kindness. It's why?
  • John: That's right.
  • Barbara: That was such an epiphany for me when I heard Michele Borba say, "Dormant empathy does no good." It changed the way I was teaching caring and kindness and empathy. So I like to think about it as a three-pronged approach. I learned this in 4H, way when I was a kid. Head, heart, and hands. Okay, so when we want to go mindset, we want to think, okay, empathy really is a mindset. It's understanding how people might be feeling. We have to have conversations with our kids. Flat out ask them, how are people feeling? And how can you tell, beyond facial recognition, that's a great place to start, because we often wear our feelings on our face, but how can you tell?
  • Barbara: Then we have to ask, imagine how those people or how that person might be feeling in that situation. We know from Michele Borba's work that reading fiction can elevate that empathy. So asking in those stories, imagining you're this character and how might you be feeling. We can also point out how people are feeling, what might they want or need right now, and what might you want or need in a similar situation? So it starts with that mindset, that understanding.
  • Barbara: Then we move it to the heart. That understanding will mobilize compassion and spark that desire to want to help, compassion, co-suffering. But I also like to point out that it also means co-celebrating, because-
  • John: That's right.
  • Barbara: Right. So we're embracing the feeling that goes with wherever they are in their journey that day. So that heart piece, just embracing, I like to call it a heartset. I'm not sure that's really even a word, but heartset seems to work. Mindset, heartset, now here comes the skillset. Once I get that empathy piece and I can mobilize it, then I can start putting my kindness into action. I can embrace that burden, I can feel it, I can care for it, and then I have the skillset.
  • Barbara: I use my hands to go back to what my head knows, to go back to what my heart feels. Now I use my hands to try to make a difference. It's not about fixing, but it's about, oh, gosh, I see you. I get it. You're not alone, and we are here moving it, really, from me to we.
  • John: That is so good. I'm taking notes frantically, because there was so much good in what you were just saying and even the practical ... So maybe we go here next. I love the head, heart, hands kind of approach, framework, right, mindset around that. A line that has always stayed with me is, the 18 inches from your head to your heart is one of the longest journeys that you ever take, right?
  • John: Maybe the the setting is this, how many times, when we go out of order and I go right to the hands, and I just start practicing it and how then it doesn't last. How would that line, right, the 18 inches from your head to your heart connected to, right, that issue that a lot of times we experience was, "I just want something to do, so I try it. But it's not necessarily creating that change." Does that make sense? How important is that head to heart piece?

“...the one thing that's the number one thing for resilience right now is hope. Without empathy, there's just a real struggle to find that hope for one another. Again, moving it away from me to we. When empathy goes up, anxiety can come down, because we know the converse is true, and really just being hope dealers in a world that's very dark without those glorious lights.”

Barbara Gruener

  • Barbara: Right. That's super important, because here's what we know. Teachers will say be kind, and because kids are compliant, they will. But it's not going to set down the roots for that sustainability or that initiative, because why? Just because the teacher said so, that's a lovely start, but it's not enough. So when we can understand that we can do the good in the world, because we get it, because we see the need, because we've stepped into somebody else's story. Then take away the idea that it's going to be easy, because they're ... Oh, gosh, it's so hard.
  • Barbara: One tangible I put on kids' hands. If you make two fists, one with your left hand, thumbs up and one with your right, hand pinky up, but the rest is a fist, right? So thumbs up and pinky up. Pretend the thumbs up is you, because you're doing a great job and the pinky up is me. Now switch. You ask them, put instead the thumbs up on the right, put it on the left and vice versa. Now switch back. Now switch back and they go, "Oh, this is hard, because it's a brain break.
  • John: I'm trying to do it right now, by the way.
  • Barbara: They want to give it up, and I say, "That's right. Empathy is hard at first and it's ..." I don't know that it's ever easy, but it gets easier with practice when we make it a habit and those 18 inches gets smaller and smaller, because we're taking it from theory to practice, from the head down to the heart, and then, boom, out to the hands, where it becomes a skillset.
  • John: That is so awesome. Well, I mean, you are a speaker, you're an author, you've been in classrooms and in schools for gosh, what, 34, 35 years? Your experience is incredible. So I know that you are connected, and so what are ... even give us more golden nuggets, right? What are some things that people are doing right now to infuse this or that you're seeing, or ways that we can cultivate empathy in our classrooms and schools?
  • Barbara: Okay, so again, anytime you add fiction and then really having those conversations. "Ooh, tell me about the book. Oh, how must that feel?" Really increasing that emotional literacy. We talk about them being soft skills, but all of our SEL competencies, I love to call them success skills, because they focus on the feelings part. Because if I don't understand the feelings, it's going to be hard to mobilize to that heart piece, where I feel it and I want to do something about it.
  • Barbara: So emotional literacy, getting kids to step into one another's stories, using books, like Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts. Oh my gosh, such a good fictional read aloud for the youngers. Any time they're able to just kind of switch places, and you don't even need a book to do that. Gosh, all day long in the classroom. "Jimmy lost his pencil." How much must that feel? Gosh, what could you do to help him get to resolution? Not fix it for him, but help him find a solution, because he's got some feelings about that. If that were you, what would you want?
  • Barbara: So inviting them, really, all day long to switch places, to feel the other side. Even, John, I've seen it in the principal's office. While they're in reflection, what is Jimmy going to say happened? You ask the kids who are in a little pickle to tell you, from the other person's point of view, what happened.
  • John: That's so good. So good.
  • Barbara: And then how you're going to make it right.
  • John: Well, and I even think you shared a couple of examples with the youngers. But also, whether it's fiction, whether it's even using pop culture, things that are in their world. Whether that be videos, whether that be movies, whether it be other things, but just taking story and then asking those same questions, right? Wherever their world is, then how could we then be infusing those pieces by asking those just critical questions that bring out empathy? That's powerful. I love that. I love that it's not soft skills, it's success skills.
  • John: Even as we kind of bring this first shorter, and you and I are going to keep talking. I know, I think we need to do a series on this, but I just remember how critical this is. I was doing a presentation related to this topic and it was actually a focus on servant leadership, but it brings in a lot of these different aspects, including empathy, and it's just amazing.
  • John: I was speaking to a, it was a fire department, which was dominantly male, right? They had female, but it's just dominantly male and they had lost a team member to suicide within the year prior. So that's why I was being brought in to speak. As I'm leaving, you get different feels from the group on how it's going, whatever. They're not showing as much excitement during it, as maybe I might see in different areas. But I know that it's resonating, because you know that the work, the material, is critical, right?
  • John: As I'm walking out, it was like a 35 year old man who just stops me. This is outside in the parking lot. It's dark, right? He comes up and he's like, "I just want you to know, man, how important this was to me." He just was talking about how it had been absent in his life and how as a dad, as a husband, how critical it was that he was facing that. He's like, "I can't make immediate change by snapping my fingers, but you know what? I'm going to start going to work."
  • John: When I think about that, whether it's, in many times, are boys who are being fed the message, the emotions don't ... we stay away from them, or even just as a society that this is "touchy feely," whatever it might be. Maybe end today's talk with just why? Come back to it again. Why is this so critical? Because you look around and go, "Well, maybe we do need to be, obviously, paying attention to this when you look around."
  • Barbara: Yeah, really the one thing that's the number one thing for resilience right now is hope. Without empathy, there's just a real struggle to find that hope for one another. Again, moving it away from me to we. When empathy goes up, anxiety can come down, because we know the converse is true, and really just being hope dealers in a world that's very dark without those glorious lights.
  • John: So good. Well, thank you for being someone who put such a focus, who was so steadfast and passionate about creating hope through. Really talking about finding ways, sharing with as many people as possible, ways that we can infuse empathy, social-emotional learning into the daily fabric of our schools. Grateful for you, my friend, and let's keep this conversation going and let's keep this work going.
  • Barbara: It sounds good. I'm grateful for y'all as well. Take care and keep on crusading for good.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com.
  • John: Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.

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The CharacterStrong Team is a partnership of educators, speakers, and students who believe in creating sustainable change in schools and helping young people develop the skills of service, kindness, and empathy.