Travis Hardy of Empatico: “Support for culturally responsive teaching and inclusive learning environments”

Support for culturally responsive teaching and inclusive learning environments. Children need to feel safe and a sense of belonging in their school communities, and to do that we need to invest in cultural competence training for educators and leverage children’s unique backgrounds and abilities for better engagement and motivation for learning. As a part of […]

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Support for culturally responsive teaching and inclusive learning environments. Children need to feel safe and a sense of belonging in their school communities, and to do that we need to invest in cultural competence training for educators and leverage children’s unique backgrounds and abilities for better engagement and motivation for learning.

As a part of my interview series about “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator”, I had the pleasure to interview Travis Hardy.

Travis Hardy is the Director of Programs and Partnerships at Empatico, a free digital platform that connects classrooms around the world to foster empathy among the future generation. He joined Empatico in 2017 after working for 5 years in the NYC Mayor’s Office for International Affairs, where he most recently served as Acting Executive Director for NYC Global Partners, a City-affiliated non-profit organization. In this role he led program and curriculum development for Global Partners Junior, a virtual exchange program for 9–13 year-olds, and co-created the City’s NYC Junior Ambassadors program to better leverage the United Nations as a resource for NYC youth. Travis earned his M.A. in International Education from New York University, and his B.A. English Language & Literature from the University of South Carolina.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

My career has been focused on giving kids unique and extraordinary opportunities that they would not have otherwise. I think about my own experiences growing up gay in a context where there was fear and homophobia, but then I was fortunate to have positive experiences through educational opportunities, including international travel to places like France and Ghana and attending a large state school. This is what drove my desire to have a career supporting others, building community, and experiencing other cultures and perspectives. I’m inspired by the work at Empatico, providing children the ability to learn from one another so that they can embrace one another’s differences.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your teaching career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A few years ago, a child in a NYC after-school program earnestly asked me if growing up in Tennessee meant that I never had access to cars, and could only commute by horse. I think about this often, the opportunities we have to tap into kids’ innate, genuine curiosity, but also how much work we have to do to learn about each other’s lives, not just globally but even across states and regionally in the US.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

To meet kids’ emerging needs, Empatico recently launched a free new learning adventure called The Great Empatico Expedition, which invites educators and students around the world on a journey to develop and practice social-emotional learning (SEL) skills through free, fun, and engaging activities, games, and lessons that inspire students’ creativity, nurture their innate kindness and curiosity, and support their ability to be more compassionate people. The website features playful “regions” associated with SEL skills (like Kindness Kingdom, Identity Island, Collaboration Station, etc.). Each region includes a series of activities that have been created with partners such as Kahoot!, Flipgrid, and and are designed to make it as easy as possible for educators to integrate them across elementary and middle school subjects. Educators can use the activities within their own classrooms and/or collaboratively with an Empatico partner class, through both asynchronous communication tools and Empatico live video exchanges.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

I think the pandemic highlighted many of the challenges faced in the US education system, from shining a spotlight on issues of equity and inclusivity, to how ill-equipped we were to support kids in remote and hybrid-learning environments This moment has offered us an opportunity to reflect on the purpose of public education and how we can better prepare kids for a complex and interconnected world. Historically, we’ve relied on success metrics like test scores, and we have overemphasized academic learning at the expense of students’ well-being, critical thinking, and social-emotional skills. When students enter the “real world” they won’t be judged on how they did on a test, but by the quality of their character and work. My hope is that our system continues to shift to a whole child approach so that all kids are better equipped for future success.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great? Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

I would highlight five areas that seem to be trending in the right direction, but must be prioritized for continued improvement:

  1. Broader celebration of the amazing but increasingly difficult work our teachers are doing. Teachers are paid 20% less than similarly educated professionals, and reportedly 1 in 4 public school teachers considered leaving their jobs after last year. We have to support educators by providing better pay and prioritizing their mental health and well-being through improved working conditions and offering continuous opportunities for training and collaboration.
  2. Increased recognition of the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) and recognition that it should be fully integrated into the education system. If educators explicitly teach and model SEL skills, while embedding them throughout the curriculum to increase student engagement, we have the biggest opportunity for impact.
  3. Awareness of children’s needs and experiences both in and out of school. Hybrid learning environments helped in many cases build stronger home-to-school connections, and highlighted to educators, parents, and caregivers the full range of supports that children need to be better learners.
  4. Support for culturally responsive teaching and inclusive learning environments. Children need to feel safe and a sense of belonging in their school communities, and to do that we need to invest in cultural competence training for educators and leverage children’s unique backgrounds and abilities for better engagement and motivation for learning.
  5. Better distribution of technology and acknowledgment that Wifi is a public necessity. Inequities in access persist, but we have a better understanding of the challenges that still exist at home and in communities, and what needs to be done.

Super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share your “5 Things You Need To Know To Be A Highly Effective Educator?” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Relationship-building is a foundational skill that extends to so many components of effective teaching, from having a strong rapport with parents and caregivers to building trust with students. I’m always inspired by the relationships Empatico educators form with their peer educators. They don’t just exchange pedagogical strategies, but also support and uplift each other through challenging times and serve as role models for their students as they explore their similarities and differences with kindness and curiosity.
  2. Exercising empathy is a critical part of supporting students who have different learning needs. Highly effective teachers will take the time to put themselves into each student’s shoes and translate those unique circumstances into differentiated instruction that meets the needs of every student. I’ve seen educators do this in Empatico live video exchanges, giving students clear roles and responsibilities and opportunities to leverage their unique skills and talents as designated question-askers and responders, artwork-sharers and project presenters, note-takers, and even skit and musical performers!
  3. Designing creative and purposeful learning experiences fosters a classroom environment that keeps students engaged while catering to diverse learning styles. Contextualizing learning in a way that connects classroom instruction to real-life experiences allows students to apply new skills as they learn them. Many of Empatico’s activities empower students to explore and leverage their own unique identities, skills, and interests to research inequities in their communities and take meaningful, empathetic actions through service projects.
  4. Goal-setting enables teachers to identify clear expectations and ambitious objectives, which can in turn expand student learning and set them up for success. For example, one class participating in Empatico’s Empathy in Your Backyard program set out to change stereotypes around their city in Arizona, and their teacher helped them set a stretch goal of meeting with their mayor. Through their outreach, they were successful and even partnered with the city’s communications department to develop a perception-changing campaign, giving students the unique opportunity to engage with community leaders and affect change.
  5. Clear and respectful communication is the cornerstone of effective teaching and a necessary component of all four previous tips, enabling teachers to build relationships, identify student needs to differentiate student learning, provide purposeful learning experiences, and set clear goals and expectations.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

First and foremost improving teacher pay and training. Teacher salaries are not typically commensurate with the roles and responsibilities encompassed within the profession, especially compared to other professions. Additionally, a lack of adequate training and support can leave many teachers (especially those new to the profession) unprepared to manage the many challenges that come with teaching, like providing culturally responsive support to kids after everything they’ve been through in the last two years. We must prioritize teacher well-being, especially for teachers of color, who face race-based stress, microaggressions, and racism within schools. This comes within today’s divisive climate, where some policy-makers throughout the United States are actively pushing to remove conversations about equity and racism from schools. Finally, we need to recognize and acknowledge that the teaching profession is well-beyond a 40-hour per week job. Educators regularly sacrifice their evenings and weekends for lesson planning and prep, student support, parent and community outreach, grading, assessment, and evaluation, and any other number of responsibilities included within the role. While some may argue that teachers are compensated through longer breaks and vacations than other professions, typically teachers dedicate their summers and other holidays to planning time, continued professional development, and/or teaching in summer school, so those breaks are still spent working. When teacher salaries don’t align with hours worked (or with the professional expertise necessary to be successful), this can quickly result in the teacher burnout and high turnover that we see today.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

From Leslie Jamison’s collection of essays, The Empathy Exams: “Empathy isn’t just listening, it’s asking the questions whose answers need to be listened to. Empathy requires inquiry as much as imagination. Empathy requires knowing you know nothing. Empathy means acknowledging a horizon of context that extends perpetually beyond what you can see.”

I love this quote for two reasons. One, it stresses the importance of cultural humility, or the acknowledgment that we may never truly understand or learn everything there is to know about someone else’s background and experiences. And two, we shouldn’t be passive or give up on connecting across our differences; empathy requires us to be intentional and humble in seeking out new perspectives and information, and understanding others’ experiences with the world.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Dolly Parton. I’m a Tennessee kid and grew up with Dolly. I think she’s the ultimate leader and role model. Dolly’s Imagination Library is an inspiration — she started with a goal grounded in her roots, to give kids in Sevier County, Tennessee free, high-quality books regardless of their family’s income. As with everything she does, the program was wildly successful, and she’s been able to expand it not just in the US but globally. I would love to learn how she stays true to herself while having massive international success, managing to do it all with kindness, grace, and humility.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can keep up with Empatico on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook under the handle @EmpaticoOrg!

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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