Start Empathy

Facilitating Leadership

Post written by Laura White for Ashoka's Start Empathy Initiative, a whole child partner organization.

Amy Potsou and Elizabeth Stickley have a unique approach to educating students. As 3rd grade and 1st grade teachers at North Glendale Elementary School in Kirkwood, Missouri, they strive to help children "walk in the shoes of others, even if they are of a different background," and "assist others because it's the right thing to do,” not because there's a reward. According to Potsou and Stickley, these are the characteristics of a leader—yet these skills are difficult to teach.

In the face of this challenge, Potsou, Stickley, North Glendale, and Kirkwood School District have developed some exciting initiatives to help students become empathic leaders. Over the last few years, the district has focused on the goals of the UNITE Committee, a group of parents and teachers that meets once a month to discuss social justice, character education, and service learning. North Glendale has formed its own branch of the UNITE Committee. This committee emphasizes empathy by creating lessons and talking points for North Glendale's family groups. Family Groups are a mixed, multiage group of students in kindergarten through 5th grade along with a staff leader. Family groups meet monthly and discuss the character words in the North Glendale Learner's Pledge (Cooperation, Respect, Responsibility, Honesty, Perseverance) and service-learning efforts.

In addition to facilitating family groups, Potsou, Stickley, and other North Glendale teachers guide their students through the process of identifying issues that matter to them and acting on them through service-learning projects. This year, students worked on the theme of hunger. After completing lessons designed by the UNITE Committee at the school, which introduced students to hunger facts and challenged them to imagine themselves in the shoes of someone who could not eat consistently, students generated ideas about what they could do to address hunger, and then they acted on them.

Potsou and Stickley also organized North Glendale's involvement in The Big Return, a campaign held during the 2011–12 school year to help students identify community problems and generate their own solutions. One of the only elementary schools to participate in the campaign, North Glendale's contributions were led by its 5th graders. Although involving the 5th grade in this St. Louis-wide effort would have been remarkable enough, Potsou and Stickley made sure to include the whole school. For example, the 5th graders' designed their project around St. Louis Children's Hospital. Their slogan was Making a Hospital Feel Like a Home. The 5th graders visited all of the classes in the school to lead empathy-based brainstorming sessions. Classes were asked to imagine themselves at home as well as the feelings they have at home and then to imagine themselves at a hospital and the feelings they experience there. Students then brainstormed ideas to make the hospital feel more like a home as well as ideas to raise money to fulfill them. Then students raised money themselves by doing chores, such as raking leaves, to earn money to donate instead of relying on their parents.

While it would have been easier to give students the ideas for making hospitals more inviting, Potsou and Stickley both strongly believe in giving students the opportunity to lead with empathy. With a little extra time and patience, students at North Glendale Elementary are developing changemaker skills that will last them a lifetime.


Sometimes making the case for cultivating changemaker skills can be challenging. In the face of increasing academic pressures, many teachers worry about striking a balance between ensuring their students meet academic expectations and grow as changemakers. Here are some talking points that Potsou and Stickley use to explain the importance of teaching empathy, teamwork, leadership, and problem-solving skills:

  • Successful people have these skills. School is not just about core subjects, it is also about becoming a successful person in society. Being a good friend, helping others, being a leader, and being accountable are just some of the character skills North Glendale teaches that will help students both now and in the future.
  • Teaching changemaker skills creates an environment for academic learning. Building empathy, teamwork, leadership, and other changemaker skills creates a positive environment, and that makes teaching academic subjects much easier.

Image attribution, Flickr

In May 2012, Laura White graduated from Tulane University with a B.A. in Political Economy. While at Tulane, she brought her Youth Venture project, Swim 4 Success, to New Orleans, La., and was a founding member of Tulane's Ashoka U changemaker campus team. As a member of the Empathy Initiative team, she manages the Changemaker Schools network, a group of schools which have given empathy as much priority as math and literacy. White is passionate about changemaker education, empathy, and transforming early childhood education.

Comments (1)


July 16, 2013

Potsou and Stickley are on the right track with their empathetic leadership ideas.  I strongly agree that in order to understand others’ differences, children need to “walk in the shoes of others, even if they are of a different background.”  If students can be viewed as leaders who stand up against injustice and racism, others are likely to follow suit.  I teach K-2 English as a Second Language in a small, yet extremely diverse school district.  I will take the ideas from your post into consideration as I work to develop a similar program in my school.  Thank you!

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