Many educators embrace the importance of relationships in the classroom to ensure a healthy learning community. Teaching with empathy is the key that unlocks an authentic connection with each student to foster a sense of belonging.
The concept of empathy has been well explored in many educational circles. The colloquialism “walk a mile in my shoes” is a concept which many teachers embrace. Educators strive to take on the perspective of their students to create connections and develop engaging lessons; however, as the world of young people becomes increasingly complex due to current events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching with empathy may present a difficulty.
The Empathy Imperative
For an educator who hopes to see all students succeed and wishes to prepare students for future success, empathy is not optional. The most perfectly designed lesson delivered with impeccable pedagogical execution will not reach students if they are disconnected. As students grow up in a society saturated with technology as a means of social communication, they are accustomed to constant availability and connectivity. Student engagement depends on their relationship with their teacher more than ever. The key to building this relationship is the ability of the educator to know individual students on an authentic level. It must go beyond knowing a student’s favorite color or favorite flavor of ice cream. This means developing an understanding of student culture, home environment, interests, and values outside of the classroom. Educators also must explore learning preferences, strengths, and challenges within the classroom.
Getting to know students on this level may sound like an impossible task. However, four strategies offer opportunities for success.
Four Ways to Practice Empathy
Build Trust through Self-Disclosure
Educational researcher and activist Parker Palmer offers the concept that “We teach who we are.” Teachers naturally bring their lens, culture, beliefs, values, and personality to their practice. Teaching is a uniquely personal endeavor, and students make a summation of their teachers very early in the educational process. Sharing experiences with students, including your own past mistakes or lessons learned, may offer them comfort to share about themselves. As students listen, they may view educators as more approachable, accessible, and authentic — setting the stage for student openness and a sense that “we are all in this together.”
When considering what information to share with students, it is essential to maintain professional boundaries. Maintaining privacy is also important, and the personal anecdotes selected should not involve sensitive or potentially controversial information. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the listener and keep stories concise to avoid monopolizing class time talking about yourself.
Another consideration is to select personal stories that are humorous, high-interest, or highly relevant to students. The idea is that your stories invite them to share their stories. Keep in mind that diversity of experience, culture, and socio-economic status exist within the classroom and be sensitive to this fact. Keep the information relatable and never take yourself too seriously as you “open up” to your class.
Listen Actively to Words and Actions
You can’t take on student perspectives if you don’t know what they are thinking, feeling, hoping, and believing. After earning trust, asking questions to elicit student self-disclosure is key to practicing empathy. It is so important to invest time in this step, albeit arduous, with large student groups through strategies such as individual conferencing, reading student journal entries, and small group discussions with students. Open-ended questions that start with the word “What” can be the most invitational. For example, “What are your thoughts on X?” or “What is most important about Y?” Too often, we ask questions that invite yes/no responses, such as “Do you like X?” or “Are you interested in Y?” Consider the questions you are asking and offer open-ended prompts to get students to open up and share, whether this is verbal, through journals, over email, or in digital chats. The information you glean will be invaluable for your empathetic practice.
Reflect on Approaches which Empower
As you develop a mutually respectful relationship with students in which you have learned about their current perspective, reflect on how your interactions can empower students. School offers one of the most transformative experiences of a student’s life, and we have limited time to have an optimal impact. As we exercise empathy and learn to view the world through the lenses of our students, we can identify unmet needs and offer guidance toward a successful future. This may mean capitalizing on teachable moments and supplementing the prescribed curriculum at times. It may also mean trying new approaches to instruction that incorporates increased interaction to build social skills in students and increase the likelihood they will come to know and appreciate one another from multiple angles.
The more deeply we get to know our students, the more we can identify their strengths and areas for growth. As these come to light, we can ask students questions that build integrity, such as “What kind of person do you want to be in the future?” and “What will it take for you to become this person?” Student responses to these questions may surprise us and offer avenues for instruction which help them develop as whole people, rather than merely information receptacles. Exercising empathy, we can develop a coaching relationship where we support students in deciding how they want to respond to their current situation and the steps they will take to make their goals and aspirations into a reality.
Show, Don’t Tell
As we get to know our students and learn to take on their perspectives, we realize that we teach them more by our actions than we do with our words. One consistent complaint I hear from students is that “teachers talk too much.” Here is a moment for pedagogical empathy. Place yourself in the shoes of a middle school student who has seven classes per day. Now imagine that your mind is consumed with your friends, the things you enjoy, random daydreams at times, as well as the ever-present question, “When’s lunch?” As you rotate through your day, you hear the voice of an adult explaining directions and content as you sit in your hard-seated desk. You try to track with what the teacher is saying, but as the morning wears on and lunchtime approaches, the growl in your stomach calls for your attention. Now imagine that the teacher offers brief directions with visuals about what to do displayed on the board with words and pictures. The teacher releases you to your learning activity, and you get out of your seat to complete the task. You engage as your teacher circulates and demonstrates the task as needed while offering encouragement. Suddenly, you finish the job just as the bell rings and it’s time for lunch. Time flew by and you accomplished the learning objective. Now imagine that you are a student with food or housing insecurity, or struggling with a learning difference.
As educators, we must demonstrate what we want from students whenever possible. As we design lessons, we must place ourselves in the student mindset and keep verbal information and text as concise as possible to convey the information. Incorporating student voices is also imperative because students are more likely to listen to each other. Shifting our practice from a lecture structure to a questioning and discussion format can create a more engaging learning environment for all students.
The Empathetic Educator
The empathetic educator is engaged in a consistent cycle of sharing, listening, reflecting, and adjusting to create active learning experiences. Share about yourself to build trust and invite student comfort. Listen actively and carefully to what students are saying with both their words and actions. Reflect on how you can cultivate empowered learners who are prepared to be contributing members of their future communities. Finally, adjust your “traditional” approaches to pedagogy as you imagine yourself seated in student desks experiencing the lessons you are planning. Saturating your practice with empathetic thinking will have lasting dividends for students as they learn and achieve at higher levels.