LAYING A FOUNDATION
Teachers. They show their students ways to solve problems and improve their lives. A kindergarten teacher will show students that they can be away from the comfort of their homes, while a college professor equips students with cognitive skills to parse through the many shades of life.
Well, how about in between, where the foundations of who a person is are gradually laid down?
Santa Ynez Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Anthony Bruemmer focuses on instilling confidence and empathy among his students, and the work to do so begins everyday before the sun rises.
Mr. Bruemmer wakes up at 5 a.m. every day to prepare for school. He runs the Keurig machine that will dispense coffee out of a reusable pod for him. While the machine chugs away, Mr. Bruemmer checks on his infant daughter. Whether or not she needs a diaper change, the daughter always needs hugs, and Mr. Bruemmer seems like the person to give those.
Once out of the house and in his car, Mr. Bruemmer turns on the radio to tune into NPR. On his half-hour drive from Orcutt to Santa Ynez, Mr. Bruemmer sips on the coffee the Keurig machine has produced.
Arriving at the school around 6 a.m. Mr. Bruemmer will sort out the lesson plan and the schedule for the day. For the first day of school, Mr. Bruemmer was more attentive about his students getting to know each other and getting comfortable with speaking up. Mr. Bruemmer laid out a recipe for students to get to know each other. The recipe was: Hello, my name is ______; My birthday is ______; One thing I like is ______; One superpower I’d like to have is ______.
To facilitate the introductions, Mr. Bruemmer arranged the desks into a semicircle, which resembled a crescent whose arms were wide open to him. Into the open arms, Mr. Bruemmer plans on launching skills for speaking, negotiating and problem solving. His approach will be simple: talking to the kids with respect.
“I try to approach the kids as though they were my peers,” he told the News-Press. “They pick up on a lot of things. When you talk with respect, they can feel that.”
Another quality being passed into the hands of the fourth-graders is empathy. Mr. Bruemmer said that he tries to get them “to understand that other people have feelings.” How will this happen? If a conflict arises, Mr. Bruemmer will ask, “How do you think that made him/her feel?” He believes that this is a difficult but necessary conversation to have because that is how the students will learn.
“You can’t really baby-talk them,” he said.
Fortunately, the kids are “usually pretty receptive.”
Another tool to cultivate empathy is through reflection and role play. Mr. Bruemmer will assign a group of kids to act out a difficult scenario, such as if somebody cuts in line. After acting out these situations, the students will then either partner up or gather in small groups to talk about how the situation can be handled. The reflection encourages the students to talk through tough situations that they themselves will go through. After the exercise, the whole class will have a discussion about the different ways to deal with the scenarios.
“When it becomes the norm to talk about these things and feelings and when they learn that their peers have similar feelings, they will talk about it more,” said Mr. Bruemmer.
After the day, Mr. Bruemmer will drive back to Orcutt, taking the half hour to transition back to family life. He will do it all again tomorrow and goes to bed at 9 p.m. looking forward to the next day.