How to Build a Culture of Empathy in International Schools – and in our Lives

I wish I had met Lynn Kogelmann when I was in Peru, going through a difficult time as we landed with our 12 and 7 years old children.


Shortly after arriving, we quickly realized the school we’d chosen for our children had nothing in the way of an integration policy. Bullying and discrimination were the norm from grade 6 to 9, and nothing was done to help students come to terms with this painful behaviour.

As parents, we did what we could to push the school administration to take action, but were shocked to find that most of the school staff, teachers, and even the majority of parents (as well as students) were completely at a loss when it came to concepts like integration, empathy, diversity and respect. The Peruvian macho culture that permeated all parts of daily life was certainly part of the reason for that, but it was also clear that no one in the school was used to a language of kindness and inclusion.

It became obvious to us that if efforts to counteract nasty and discriminatory behavior do not come from the inside of the school, it would be very hard to build a culture of peace and empathy. This is why I enormously appreciated Lynn Kogelmann when I found her online: she is a school counsellor in an international school in Tanzania, and her main effort with the students and the surrounding community is to spread a culture of love and kindness. It is especially on the latter that Lynn invites us to focus on.

Photo credit Nathaniel Tetteh on Unsplash

As she explained in an interview that she gave to Expatclic, she firmly believes that kindness is a strong connector across cultures. As a universal value, kindness is recognized across the whole world, and we need to teach our children how to channel it in our lives. For students, school is the perfect place to start, since they spend such a large amount of time there.

This is particularly true for international schools, where students naturally come in contact with diversity. Even so, unfortunately oftentimes when there is diversity, there is also discrimination and bullying. What Lynn suggests with deep enthusiasm, is to promote the use of kindness in order to oppose a language of isolation, which will create a culture of inclusion and empathy.

What I liked about Lynn’s approach is that she suggests very practical ways to introduce such an approach. In an article she wrote for the school where she is currently working, she outlines many useful and concrete steps the school can take to introduce kindness in relationships at all levels. It is not only the students that are invited to act kindly with one another, but the entire community, including teachers, school staff, and parents who must act empathically to promote a peaceful and inclusive environment.

What gives me hope when I read Lynn’s words is that she is firmly convinced that when you act with kindness – with even just one person – you make a difference for them and that changes the world a bit every day. This made me think of Chris O’Shaughnessy’s keynote opening speech at FIGT 2016. Chris shared a story about his time as a student in an international school where he met a girl who arrived and felt totally lost and isolated. No one approached her , which increased her sense of loneliness. Chris knew what it meant to arrive in a new place and be unable to fit in. He talked to her and made an effort to make her feel noticed. Years later he came across the same girl in a bank. They greeted each other and she shared with him that it was thanks in great part to his interaction that she had decided not to commit suicide years after their time together. It was a powerful story that confirms Lynn’s idea that even when we show empathy to a single person, we contribute to building a culture of love that connects the world.


Claudia Landini
Jakarta, Indonesia
April 2018
Featured photo: Pixabay