Empathetic Teaching: Feeling Our Way to Improved Outcomes by Nancy Heuer-Evans, Curriculum Coordinator
Today I’d like to talk about empathy. I would love to say that I came into the world an empathetic person, but that would be a big fat fib. I had to learn how to care about people and their experiences, their challenges, the hard way. The excruciating, personal experience way. Don’t understand people living with chronic pain? The universe will help you with that. Impatient with people who learn differently from you? Humility on its way! At this point, I can with utmost confidence state that learning to be empathetic has been a long journey but one of the most rewarding of my life as it’s opened my eyes to stronger, better ways to connect and inspire.
What is empathy? Dictionary.com says it is “the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”
What is empathy?
“The psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”
That means you are able to feel what someone is going through without actually having to go through the experience yourself. I raided my long-standing lecture on rhetoric to offer this: the Greek word pathos, a key corner on Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle, stands for the deepest held beliefs and values of the listener or reader in any rhetorical situation. It is the root word from which empathy and sympathy sprout. I tell my students that everything we say or write has to adapt to the filter of our audience’s beliefs and values. If we do not adapt, our message will bounce off the walls of their self-protection and be lost to the wind. Additionally, if you demonstrate to your classes that you have not paid attention to their beliefs and values, you will not be able to reach them at any point for the foreseeable future.
It would be so much simpler, wouldn’t it, if we were just teaching content? If our students were empty vessels waiting for us to fill them up? Alas, we live in THIS world, so it is crucial that we understand the imperative we face to connect with our students, meet them where they are, teach THEM, not just the content.
So now you have an outline of how empathetic you are, what can you do to improve how you employ your empathy in the classroom, either in the physical space or in your online platform.
Depending on the courses you teach, it may actually be appropriate to include empathy as part of the course content. For instance, if you’re teaching history or language arts, you can include reading and writing assignments that allow your students to put themselves inside someone else’s experience—to know what it was like to be an abolitionist or to be a passenger on the Underground Railroad. Look at your syllabus, at your course goals, and see if it makes sense to have empathy as an explicit part of instruction rather than solely an implicit part.
Next, you set the tone. Is there an activity that can be included daily or weekly that encourages questions and sharing? Be sure you answer these questions, too—you need to model how to share and be vulnerable for those who are new to the empathy game. For instance, you might ask questions like “What is your least favorite thing to do that you do anyway?” or “Does anyone have a driving disaster story they want to share?” Try to choose topics that find commonality so everyone can participate. If you have students who don’t like to talk in front of everyone, you can encourage them to write their responses down. If you’re teaching online, this could be done on a Discussion Board. If you’re in-person, try doing it as a warm-up exercise at the start of class. The question should make sense based on what you’re going to be teaching that day.
While I was teaching college freshman English, I spent quite a bit of time teaching my students about active listening skills, which I feel are at the heart of empathy. Since I used peer groups for evaluating each other’s papers, it was important to me that they engage in the process in the most empathetic way possible. I thought it unsafe to assume everyone had previous active listening instruction, so we went over the basics, which are key to creating an empathetic environment. As a refresher, here they are:
Everything about you should indicate the speaker has your undivided attention—eye contact, posture, placement of arms and legs—lean forward, stop fidgeting
Depending on what is being said, you may have some knee-jerk reactions. Govern your face to keep it open and responsive. Fire your inner judge.
It’s OK to pause for a moment and think about your response. The air does not have to be filled with words as soon as the speaker is finished. Your thoughtfulness will be valued.
If anything is unclear, now is the time to ask questions for clarification. Do not stop until you’re sure you completely understand what they’re trying to say.
Restate what you think their main ideas/issues are. “So here’s what I’m hearing you say….”
Do not be stingy with your response. Again, you are modeling empathy and vulnerability. Just be guided by what you think has value
- Limit distractionsPay attention to speaker, not what you want to say in response
- Be OK with silence
- Encourage other person to offer ideas and solutions
- Restate key points to clarify
So why has the educational world turned toward empathy? Because it improves outcomes and teacher satisfaction. It’s truly a win/win. These are the benefits of an empathy-centered environment:
- builds positive classroom culture
- strengthens community. …
- prepares students to be leaders
- helps you understand what’s driving your students’ behavior/success/lack thereof
- puts the focus on the student/teacher and student/student relationships
- builds trust and respect.
- reduces tensions.
- creates a safe environment that is conducive to collaborative problem-solving.
- tells someone, “You are important” and “I am not judging you”
- gains the students’ cooperation.
- elicits openness.
If, when you took the empathy questionnaire, you found that you are needing some exercise for your empathy muscles, that’s great, too. You can do that while sharing your journey with your students. Try reading some fiction so you can inhabit the characters’ lives and experience what it’s like to be them. Listen to music that makes you feel, the music you may not typically be exposed to. Start watching faces to see how much is expressed. Engage your good friends, the ones who tell you the truth no matter what, to help you. Check out some podcasts that let you experience a reality you otherwise would have no access to.
A while back I read an article in Scientific American that talked about amazing new brain research that looked at mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are specialized neurons in the brain that allow us to understand other people’s actions in terms of our own movements and goals. They are the skeleton that empathy grows on. There is research that supports the idea that the majority of people have perfectly functioning mirror neurons and can therefore grasp empathy.
Let’s go with that, then. Let it be the lens we use to see the world of our classrooms and let it be the legacy we give to our students.
For more information on implementing empathetic teaching, check out the resources at the end of this blog—included there is a Ted Talks playlist of the top 5 talks on the importance of empathy. I highly recommend them.
Be sure to drop into our i-Pathwayslearninglab site for information about future trainings and broadcasts, as well as resources to build your teaching repertoire.
Davis, M. H. (1980). “A multidimensional approach to individual differences in empathy.” JSAS Catalog of Selected Documents in Psychology, 10, 85.
Olderbak, S., Sassenrath, C., Keller, J., & Wilhelm, O. (2014). “An emotion-differentiated perspective on empathy with the emotion specific empathy questionnaire.” Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-14.
Spreng, R. N., McKinnon, M. C., Mar, R. A., & Levine, B. (2009). “The Toronto Empathy Questionnaire.” Journal of Personality Assessment, 91(1), 62-71.