A Lesson in Empathy and Friendship, Thoughts on Language Learning

Recently, I ordered a book of short stories in Portuguese—a language I don’t speak. To be fair, I have been self-studying for about a year. I settle into a floral print chair with my new book, a pen, a highlighter, and a Portuguese–English dictionary. Without the dictionary, I understand about 1 out of 3 words.

I tell a friend it feels like this, “Oh, she lost something. I wonder what it is… Oh, she is sad. Maybe she is sad because she lost something? There’s a pineapple. Why is there a pineapple in this story?”

I take a deep breath. This is a lesson in empathy, right? I have always been a strong reader; I don’t have any memories of struggling to read. And so, I think back to the strategies I used when teaching reading intervention programs in K-12 schools. I look for context clues. I re-read. I summarize individual sentences and paragraphs. I write in the margins. I tell myself, the more you read, the easier it gets. It takes me 20 minutes to read 2 pages and I am pretty sure I am not following all the plot points.

I close the book, feeling both frustrated and…inspired. It occurs to me that all educators should try this exercise.

While reading (or more accurately struggling to read) that book of short stories in Portuguese, it occurred to me that during my time in education, I’ve learned more from not having the right word or having to ask for help to find the right word than I have from many of my more fluent conversations.At Mizzou Academy, we have students from around the world. As a school with a majority English Language Learner population, I want our teachers to have some of these same learning opportunities.

I am reminded of all those days greeting my students in their home languages.

sabah alkhyr, habari, boker tov, nǐ hǎo

(Phonetic spelling, good morning in Arabic/ Swahili for hello/ phonetic spelling of good morning in Hebrew/ phonetic spelling of hello in Mandarin)

Although teenagers have different ways of showing their appreciation, my students seemed happy to see me waiting for them at the door. We shared a moment of humanity, a moment that said, I recognize you as more than just a student in my class; I see you as a person. These moments matter.

Now, as the principal of a global school, these moments still matter. I get an idea. I write out a short passage in English:

The world is small. We are all neighbors. Our diversity makes us strong. You are welcomed and valued. We are hopeful for the world our students will lead. 

A lesson in translation and friendship at Mizzou Academy

Then I do what I have done so many times before, I go around and ask our school staff, “How do you say this in [enter language]?” Soon we’ve translated the phrases from this passage into Thai, Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish, and Malay.

At our next professional development day with the Mizzou Academy teaching team. I give them the following passage.


כולנו שכנים.

Nuestra diversidad nos hace fuertes.

Anda dialu-alukan dan dihargai.

Temos esperança no mundo que os nossos alunos vão liderar.

I ask them to translate as much as they can on their own. Then, I tell them they can use the people in this room. Then I set them free, to make new friends, particularly with our support staff. I look down the hall and new conversations are happening. People are learning each other’s names. You can hear laughter.

“How do you pronounce that again?”

“Tell me more.”

“Okay, how would you say…”

The teaching staff at Mizzou Academy translating words and building friendships

The teachers come back with all the lines translated. I hear them testing out new phrases, rolling the unfamiliar syllables around in their mouths. We talk about what we’ve learned. It’s another lesson in empathy, right? Sure, But it’s also a lesson in friendship and wisdom.

Some people say music is universal. Some say math. I don’t disagree, but I propose that care is the most universal. The organizational structure of schools is marked by relationships: student-teacher, teacher-teacher, faculty-staff, teacher-community, etc. To be effective in any of these relationships requires a commitment to meet each other partway. I agree to try and understand what it is like to walk in your flip flops, to learn to say good morning and thank you in your home language, to settle into the discomfort of sometimes not being able to follow the whole conversation, to ask compassionate questions, to reach for a dictionary, and to do my very best to understand more next time. When we can’t think of the right word, we agree to keep trying to understand each other, to meet one another with a hug, a smile, or if we’re really lucky, some warm food that nourishes not only our bodies but also the community we’re building together.


This article was adapted from a longer piece titled, Language Learning Lessons for Teachers. You can find it here.