Former math teacher promotes importance of listening
In 2017, retired high school math teacher Bob Brown and his wife Elizabeth discovered the Empathy Tent during an event in Los Angeles and found their calling in retirement.
The Empathy Tent—a pop-up canopy set up in public spaces—encourages constructive dialogue among people with different views to de-escalate and connect. It was started by San Francisco Bay Area resident Edwin Rutsch, the founding director of the Center for Building a Culture of Empathy.
How did you get involved with the Empathy Tent?
My wife (also a retired teacher) and I were attending a rally in Los Angeles and came across the Empathy Tent. As we marched, we were shouting slogans and I thought, “This is fruitless—the Empathy Tent is what I should be doing!” For the last couple years, I’ve been working with Edwin on getting people together and having constructive dialogues and it’s been very productive work. We set up the tent at political events, city council meetings, school board meetings and once a week at the local library. We just set it up where people gather and listen.
What happens when someone walks into the Empathy Tent?
I say “Hi, I’m Bob—is there anything in your heart or on your mind that you’d like to talk about?” It starts there.
We invite people from all parts of the political spectrum and we’re very intent on making sure it’s a balanced invitation. When you’re in the Empathy Tent, you don’t need to agree with anybody—you’re just listening to them, repeating what you hear back to them and acknowledging they’ve come somewhere as human beings.
Last year we had a gathering of Libertarians and Democrats. They had some hesitation at first, but once they started listening to each other, you could see them just relax right in front of your eyes. And they left smiling and hugging each other.
How has the Empathy Tent changed your life?
The Empathy Tent is just another reassurance that we as human beings have what it takes inside of us to be kind, respectful, forgiving, compassionate and merciful. It has reassured me that we all have this goodness within us and we need things like this to let the steam kind of blow off and get to the real heart of who we are.
How does your teaching background tie in with the Empathy Tent?
As a teacher, I knew that students had what it took to learn the material and I tried to set up an environment so that they could feel safe to look inside their hearts and their minds and understand how language works, and how mathematics works. So now I’m fully confident that everybody who comes into the Empathy Tent has what it takes to listen and speak and respect someone else.
Was your experience with teaching high schoolers a plus?
Yeah it was! Teenagers helped me realize where my ego sticky points were and they helped me smooth them down a little bit.
You started teaching at age 49. What did you do before that?
When I got out of college, I was in the wine business and I was a salesman, a PR guy and a journalist. When I was 32, I got what I thought was a message that I should be a priest, so I went to an Episcopal seminary and was ordained. Then I married my wife and I was a priest for 13 years.
How did you make the transition from priest to teacher?
I’ve always kind of had a hankering to be a teacher. One of our congregation members was an administrator in a local school district and she helped guide me through the process. I took courses at the local university. Because the district needed math teachers—and my dad was a rocket scientist—I knew I could do it, so it worked out great!
What is one thing that really stands out for you in your career?
I was asked to speak at a conference for preparing math teachers, and a student walked up to me and said “Mr. Brown! Can you believe I’m becoming a math teacher?” She was a former student of mine and when she said that I thought, boy, I could die and go to heaven today!
Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.
This profile also appears in Retired Educator Summer 2019, as part of the “How Are You Spending Your Retirement” series. To share the exciting and interesting things you have done since retiring, email RetiredEducator@CalSTRS.com.