The Power of Connection: How Empathy Overcomes Adversity and Creates Student Success

Michael Lehan was a keynote speaker at the University of Minnesota CEHD’s spring 2016 commencement ceremony for graduate students. In this blog, he expands on his message of empathy and understanding.

How do we create an environment in our schools that encourages resilience, creates connection and empowers student success? My journey has taken me from a childhood marked by instability to the NFL to beginning my current role as first-year principal of Osseo High School in Minnesota, my second year in the district. Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about the power of empathy.

Learning Resolve and Grit

In many ways, my childhood was not easy. Until 8th grade, I had very little stability; I was in foster care and lived in many different homes. However, I’ve often talked in my speeches about how the life process produces opportunities. My life was tumultuous and certainly challenging at times, but what I took from that experience in my early years was resolve. I learned the ability to always find the silver lining. I developed grit – and the belief I could overcome anything.

My drive and determination was reinforced by my involvement in sports. I had a gift for playing football and was fortunate enough to earn a chance to play in the NFL for the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints.

I really believe sports reinforced my grit and my ability to “lean in” to challenging experiences. As a professional athlete, you must have the will to keep playing at a high level even when your body tells you it’s tired and hurt. Whether you have a broken nose or dislocated ankle, you still have to go out and play. It’s about always pressing forward, pushing yourself to be the best athlete you can possibly be.

Sports taught me how to invest in the learning process and work with a team towards a common goal. In football, I had to learn to accept constructive – and sometimes not so constructive – criticism from coaches. Learning from criticism and using that knowledge to improve is a skill that’s invaluable.

In many ways, an educator and a professional athlete aren’t that different; both require a commitment to lifelong learning and the belief that everyone needs to work together to achieve a common goal. I often think about, “How can we work together as a staff and how can we engage student perspectives to create the best teaching and learning environment that we possibly can? The idea that “we are only as strong as our weakest link” is something I hope to instill in our students.

The Power of Empathy

As I walk the halls of Osseo High School, every student I see has their own story. Although it may not be exactly like mine, each one has their own challenges and struggles to face. I try to enter my conversations with students from a place of empathy and understanding. I challenge myself to be reflective about what I needed when I was their age and think about what they might need – and that’s certainly not someone yelling at them. It’s about asking, “How can I help you be successful?” not telling them “Be successful!” It’s about asking them what support they might need from me.

As an educator, you’ll find that when you enter conversations from a point of inquiry, rather than saying “shame on you” or “you ought to do it this way,” your students will open up and tell you what they need from you.

One thing that is lost these days is the basic understanding of human need. So many of my students are longing for someone to really hear them, to touch their lives with a little bit of encouragement – even if that’s a simple high-five and saying, “Hey, good job.”

Our students want to be heard. If we provide opportunities and a platform for their voice in our process, that’s going to enrich our school environment.

The Importance of CEHD

I was recently honored to speak at the spring graduate student commencement ceremony at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). I think the college is an essential part of our state and the world. There’s no greater good that you can do than to develop humanity, and that’s really what CEHD does: supporting and developing students’ commitment to the betterment of society. When I was attending CEHD to earn my degree in Family Social Science and a minor in Youth Studies, I learned to be a source of support, a resource and an ally to the students I work with on a daily basis.

Both in the classroom and coursework, my professors and mentors at CEHD taught me about being self-reflective and not making assumptions about other people – seeking to understand who they are and why they are who they are. I think this message is reinforced by the great work being done by CEHD’s dean, Dr. Jean Quam, who is one of the most revered deans in the nation. Rest assured that CEHD is in good hands.

I’m very thankful for my experience at CEHD as a young, 18-year-old fresh out of high school just trying to figure out what I was going to do in the world. My moral compass and imperative was to work with those around me and the college really provided me opportunities to do that.

A Message for the Next Generation of Teachers

Education has been transformative in my life, and I’m always excited to be able to meet and communicate with aspiring teachers who will be molding our next generation. There’s no “one size fits all” approach to education; each teacher needs to figure out what works best for them. But I would like to offer three principles that I believe every teacher needs to understand before starting their career.

  • Seek to understand. What we learn inside the four walls of a classroom is theory, but how do you transfer that theory to practice? To understand your students, you must first understand your own experience, biases and beliefs. How do you dismantle or disrupt those beliefs that might not be advantageous to the students, the parents, the community or the colleagues you come in contact with? Through this understanding you can be your best, authentic self, allowing yourself to fully invest in the work of reaching your students.
  • Understand that it’s a process. Teaching is hard work. You’re not always going to be appreciated. The lesson plan that you think is awesome is not always going to go well. You have to work through these challenges and commit to the process of growing as an educator. Be unwavering in your due diligence to provide appropriate, rigorous and relevant material for your students.
  • Understand your purpose. Why do you want to be an educator? Why are you in this job? It’s not an easy one. If your purpose is truly to reach and help the students you work with, that will be your bedrock, something that can see you through when times get challenging.

For all the future teachers who might be reading this, I wish you all the best in your journey. Embrace it, and you’ll find that teaching is a profoundly rewarding career. It’s also an important one – the success of our next generation depends on you.

Michael Lehan

About the Author

Michael Lehan

  • Principal
  • Osseo Senior High School

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