Care & Empathy Training: Preparing Student Mentors to Work with Reluctant Peers


Today I had a tremendous opportunity to put some of my research from my doctoral study to use in a whole new setting. A few weeks ago my special education department chair came to me with concerns about her peer mentors struggling to connect with her most at-risk students. (For quick background, my school has an ‘academy’ dedicated to serving our 50 most at-risk students as identified by grades, behavior, attendance and other factors under the special education umbrella.) I immediately jumped at the chance to provide training for these mentors, believing my newfound expertise in care ethics could help enlighten these mentors approach to working with their more reluctant peers. 

My inspiration for wanting to take on this training comes entirely from my research related to Nel Nodding’s theory of Care Ethics, which played an instrumental role in my dissertation research. In fact, I’ve told friends and family that if I ever taught in the university setting, I would very much like to implement a care ethics and innovative teaching course. Today’s training was my first real opportunity to try what that class would look like.

While I was expecting around 8 students to participate, I only had two show up. While I do wish I could have met with more students, I was thrilled to have the conversations and dialogue with the two who did make it to the session. My hope when crafting this session was I would be able to scale it for multiple audiences, including my colleagues or other teaching peers. In fact, I’m so happy with the initial result of this workshop-style lesson, I may in fact propose it in for a conference session. (Hopefully, if you are planning on attending GCTE this year, you will see me and many of colleagues there!) What I am sharing today is the workshop itself and some initial reflections, especially as I consider trying to do this work with peers.

Here are the Google Slides I shared with the mentors:

For the opening activity, I use the following statement stems for them to complete and share. I, too, participated.

  • I identify as (male, female, young, black, etc.)
  • I often worry about (grades, family, etc.)
  • I feel most at home when (I’m listening to music)
  • I feel insecure about (my height, etc.)

This welcomed the opportunity for the three of us to immediately build a sense of empathy, and provided me an opportunity help them unpack how these statements relate to the students they are trying to serve, highlighting those students too have identities, worries, comforts, and insecurities.

For the prospective walk, I asked the following questions:

  1. Which category is most important in caring?
  2. Which category is least important in caring?
  3. Which category do you feel the school does a good job of supplying?
  4. Which category do you feel the school does a poor job of supplying?
  5. Which category do you feel Destiny students lack?

These questions and the dialogue that followed really helped the mentors unpack what their mentees may need as well as how they are benefiting from the elements of care others show them at our school.

One of the two mentors shared his realization that one of the students he had been working with tries to avoid work regularly and claims he has nothing to work on when, as the mentor put it, he clearly does, and that had resulted in the mentor “giving up” on him a few times. The mentor suggested to himself that he should really try to understand where the student is coming from and why he is avoiding the work. The mentor said he saw a chance to invest more in the student. (I get goosebumps just writing it down!)

The other mentor was a bit more guarded in response to the training, but showed emotion when talking about the people who had invested in her and the result of that investment. For her, it was her mom–the constant and regular encourager and protector. A role in her life she admits the students she is trying to help likely need.

My initial reflection mere hours after the training is this workshop is easier to do with adolescent students who are still forming belief systems about people versus adults who have years of lived experiences informing their care beliefs. Still, I am hopeful that I am wrong in that assessment, and that my peers would react just as positively. I believe I need to modify the timing of the workshop so it can adapt to less time–I had an hour and half this first time around. I will also get feedback from the two students next week about their experience and takeaways. I will update this post when I do.

Feel free to take a modify what I’ve shared for your own purposes if you think it might be of value. I can provide more concrete directions on how I implemented the lesson if desired–simply reach out. In any case, I am hoping the adults who read this see value in this sort of workshop with students and teachers alike. We could all be a little more empathetic. Don’t you think?


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