Habits of Mind: Empathy

This post is part of a series on sixteen “Habits of Mind” put forth by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick as being “necessary for success in school, work, and life” (Costa & Kallick, 2010, p. 212).

Listening with understanding and empathy: Understand others! Devoting mental energy to another person’s thoughts and ideas; holding in abeyance one’s own thoughts in order to perceive another’s point of view and emotions.

I’m taking this post a bit off-topic and writing not about how I am empathic at work, but rather, how a personal experience forced me into the proverbial mile in another’s shoes.

On December 20th, I had surgery to correct femoral acetabular impingement.  My prognosis is good – the surgeon predicted an eventual return to full athletic activity for me, but in the meantime I had a few physical limitations:

  • No driving for two full weeks after surgery
  • Walk assisted, to some degree, by crutches for at least the first four weeks after surgery
  • Very limited mobility in my right leg for the first few weeks after surgery
  • No bending at the hip past 90 degrees for six weeks after surgery

The weeks since the 20th have given me a refresher course in awareness of issues of mobility and physical access. Here are some of my experiences from the last month:

Week 1: While I was able to get around on two crutches, I felt weak, nauseous, and tired much of the time from the surgery and pain meds.  The first few days I spent mostly horizontal on the couch, alternately reading, watching TV, and napping.  I avoided getting up as much as possible not so much because of the walking on crutches, but because the physical act of getting up off the couch without bending my hip was so taxing.  I had to mentally prepare myself just to get off the couch – I was not used to that.  Learning to use the crutches properly took a little getting used to as well – put your weight on the handles, not the armpit pads.  I’ll spare you the details of how I managed in the bathroom, but suffice to say that I had to reinvent how I did all the many things one does in the bathroom in order to stay upright and not stress the hip joint.  If you want a small taste of what it was like, try taking a shower (and getting in and out) standing on one foot. Good luck with that.

Week 2: Significantly better than Week 1, but still on two crutches.  Getting in and out of the car (as a passenger) was laborious, as I not only had to lean backwards into the seat, but then lift my right leg into the car with two hands while not breaking the 90 degree bend at my hip.  That, plus the increased amount of time it took me to get from Point A to Point B on the crutches made being ambulatory feel kind of like more trouble than it was worth (and what a horrible thing to feel!).

Weeks 3-4: Back to work!  I returned from Winter Break on the two-week post-op date – I was allowed to drive, but the hour+ drive to work made for an uncomfortable ten hours each week.  I often felt in danger of breaking the 90 degree rule, so I rolled up a fleece blanket and sat on that while leaning the seat back as far as it would go – still not terribly comfortable, but thankfully I have long arms and have been able to live with this arrangement.  I also spent the first few days spectacularly underestimating how long it would take me to get to different locations around my building.

Now: As I write this, I am just shy of four weeks from my surgery, and things are going about as well as could be expected.  I’m walking mostly unassisted, but I’m not allowed to bend beyond 90 degrees at the hip until the end of January, and I still have to take it slow going up stairs.  I feel fortunate that my recovery has gone as well as it has.

It still amazes me how much of the last month I have spent thinking about my body – not in terms of vanity or exercise, but in a purely logical, mechanical sense:

  • How can I group the tasks I need to get done so I can minimize the amount of time I spend on my feet?
  • Should I bring a backpack to work so I can carry more than one thing at a time?
  • What’s the quickest way to get to X or Y classroom in case I’m needed?
  • When are the halls filled with students, so I can time my trips to classrooms/offices/bathroom accordingly?
  • Now that I’m in the kitchen/bedroom/office, do I have everything I came in here for so I don’t have to make another trip in 10 minutes?
  • Should I just stand at the counter and eat my food now or should I make multiple slow trips to get it all into the living room?
  • Should I sit uncomfortably in my office chair and think constantly about breaking the 90 degree mark or should I just stand at my desk to work?*
  • When do I need to get dressed in order to have someone around to put my right sock on for me?
  • What clothes/shoes do I have to wear in order to make getting dressed less challenging?**
  • Is my hip flexion breaking 90 degrees?  What about now?  How about now?  Now?

But here’s the thing – I won’t be living with these issues forever.  I have, for a very short period of time, experienced a hint of what lots of folks live with on a full-time basis: limited mobility, persistent discomfort, and fatigue.  The experience has been a valuable one, not only for the long-term physical health benefits, but also for the concrete reminder that we all live, work, and move within different physical realities, and to be mindful of that at all times in our professional practice.

As Ira Socol says – and I frequently parrot – disability is often transactional.  In the case of physical disability, being mindful of the myriad potential physical conditions people can bring with them to your office, your shop, or your classroom and accommodating for them can lessen or remove their impact (read Ira’s blog post linked above for good examples of how).  Even those of us who consider ourselves sensitive to these issues may not fully recognize barriers until we experience them for ourselves.  Demonstrating empathy in this regard is elemental to establishing a culture of respect and trust, especially when one works with children and their families.


*Shout-out to my colleague Ryan, who provided me a tall stool from his office – a low-cost assistive technology accommodation that has made working at my desk significantly more tolerable for this 6’2″ guy with restricted hip movement.

**My 3-year-old daughter can zip up my black Chelsea boots for me, so they’ve gotten a lot of wear this month.



Costa, A.L. & Kallick, B. (2010). It takes some getting used to: rethinking curriculum for the 21st century. In H. H. Jacobs (Ed.), Curriculum 21: essential education for a changing world (pp. 210-226). Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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