Building Empathy

We all know that late-in-the-day feeling—we’ve taught the same lesson in each of four class periods, and there’s still one more to go. In this 5th period, we’re on automatic pilot, relying on mouth muscle memory for each sentence, which rolls into the next one and the next one. Stand here when demonstrating this part, move over there when asking students to share insights, expect the same responses from students this afternoon as were offered by students in earlier classes.

Before each class period, we remember not to get lost in our intellectual or overly familiar biases and assume students can see concepts as clearly as we see them in our heads. We make the implicit and unspoken explicit and spoken. What misconceptions did I or earlier students have with this concept, and have I taught in such a way as to prevent those notions from taking root?

Turn to basic human needs for a moment: Are students hydrated? Are their stomachs growling? Did students have adequate sleep before coming to school today? Is there enough lighting? Do we need to open the windows and get fresh air circulating in the room? Can everyone see the board or demonstration without distraction?

Did my English Language Learners understand that reference? Am I enabling students to save face in front of classmates, or am I pushing toward humiliation? Do I create a classroom atmosphere that makes students feel invited to learn?

We’re trying not to induce paralyzing doubt, but to invite reflective analysis and empathy. In my experience, the most effective teachers are those who can remember the first time they learned the material they are teaching today, and if they can’t, they have a powerful imagination that can help them appreciate that unblemished mindset.

There are many ways to cultivate empathy in students, and that is certainly a worthy goal of any teacher and program. In the space we have here, however, let’s focus on how teachers create empathy for the students they teach and how that empathy informs instructional decisions.

Building Empathy for Students

We can find many ways to pull on the shoes of a student and develop empathy for his or her learning experience:

Sit in students’ desks. When a student is absent, sit in his desk while the class is working. View the room and class from that angle. You’ll quickly see that some up-front demonstrations can’t be seen from that angle, reflection of the overhead lights obliterates what you wrote on the front board, and it’s a walking minefield of backpacks to get to the supply table or the iPad storage locker. You realize the student work you posted on the wall to affirm outstanding achievement is so high up, nobody can read it. The students seated around you are unusually extroverted while the student whose seat you’re using is very introverted. That may be a problem.

Travel to a country where you don’t speak the language. In such a place, it’s much easier to appreciate the angst of English Language Learners and to determine what would help ease their anxieties and help them learn. Similarly, we can take a class in a subject that is difficult for us, and periodically reflect on what professors do and don’t do that hinders our learning.

Make home visits. If we teach more than 40 students, this is prohibitive, but we can visit a strategic 25 or 30. Each year that I’ve done this, I’ve been struck by what I discover about students and equally so, at the good that comes from the visits. Just as we do sometimes with our own parents, we see students behave differently with their parents and in their homes than they do at school.

We see familial culture and personal interests, hear stories of previous challenges and triumphs, and often enjoy a meal or small snack together. Parents feel nervous at first—something must be wrong if the teacher is visiting—but eventually they relax and feel respected that we took time for the visit. In return, they are more receptive to phone calls and e-mails about their child, and they invest more time and support in their child’s learning.

On my end, I have a treasure trove of what makes Misha tick and how lessons will be received at home. I can use both to shape instruction.

Video yourself teaching. It’s amazing how much we deny reality or so focus on one thing that we miss another. I’ve identified and confronted my teaching weaknesses more constructively by watching myself teach real students in real time than by simply reflecting later on what I remember from the day. With the video, I can see the impact of my words and actions on every student and contrast those observations with what I thought was happening at the time—they’re not always the same thing. It sensitizes me to the students’ experience.

Practice re-framing. In their book Creative Confidence (2013), Tom and David Kelley suggest re-framing as a way to build creative responses to problems. They quote Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt’s famous line, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” How does this change the way a company markets its equipment? The Kelleys caution us to re-frame situations to see what new, more effective questions can be asked: “Instead of trying to invent a better mousetrap,…look at other ways to mouse-proof your home. Maybe the mousetrap isn’t really the problem.” (p. 101)

To build empathy, we can re-frame what we see in the classroom and school. Instead of looking for ways to punish students who frequently disrupt our lessons, we might re-frame the inquiry as, “How can I relate this content more to his life, so he finds meaning in what we do and will engage constructively?” or “How can I help him become more self-aware?” Instead of “How can I get this parent off my back?” we can re-frame the situation with “What did I say that put the parent in such a defensive position, and how would I feel if my own child’s teachers said the same thing to me?” or “What’s happening in the family that might be shaping this interpretation of my comments?”

Re-framing helps us take on the perspective of others. Peering through alternative frames, we see solutions with greater clarity: learning becomes an act of creation, not consumption; grades are communication, not compensation; discipline is a time of teaching and growth, not revenge; failure is only the first attempt at learning.

Reflect on scenarios. Daryl drops his pencil on the table with a loud clunk and folds his arms across his chest in defiance. He’s part of a small group in your class, but he’s quit working. Fellow group member, Missy, calls you over to the table and complains, “Daryl is not cooperating. We can’t get anything done.” What are the possible reasons for Daryl’s sudden dysfunction?

  1. Daryl didn’t do the preparation last night for today’s group task, and he’s angry about it. He rationalizes that his lack of preparation is reasonable because he didn’t have time or materials to do the tasks, when actually he did, but he didn’t ask for guidance when needed. He blames the teacher for this problem.
  2. Daryl was smiling and working happily for a full 15 minutes, but he noticed that he was doing everything in the project because the rest of the group was busy talking about the stars of the latest dystopian-world movie. He repeatedly asked them to stop talking and help him with the tasks, but they refused. So, he shut down and declared, “Fine, you do it!”
  3. Daryl had an argument this morning with parents who accused him of something he truly didn’t do. This was followed by a harsh scolding from the school bus driver for something Daryl thought didn’t justify such an over-the-top response. He’s trembling with growing furor when he enters your first period class and hears you ask everyone to work cooperatively and quietly on the project he’s not in the mood to do. “Yeah, right,” he mumbles as he slams into his chair.

With colleagues, we can present real classroom situations like this and practice multiple interpretations that look beyond initial impressions. It’s like observing individuals at airports, shopping malls, or sporting events and conjuring stories of why they are there, where they’re going, and what they’re thinking at the time. All of us can do this; we’re consummate storytellers.

Looking Below the Surface

It’s amazing what personal experience does for empathy. If we have a gay sibling or child, we see gay rights differently. If we have a spouse or parent with mental illness, we find ways to get more mental health services in the community.

Real empathy for students comes from significant and high-quality time spent in their company, and becoming student-aware opens new doors to instruction: The self-discipline Tamika applies to her martial arts classes might be mined for renewed commitment to a learning goal in class. We didn’t know why Jerry didn’t understand the math until we asked him to explain his process. Let’s not ask Hiro, the one Japanese-American student in the class, to speak for all Japanese-Americans about how the internment camps of World War II affect Japanese standing in America today.

Students are not merely the surface we see reflected off their skin, clothing, and behavior on any one day. They are a fascinating amalgam of all that has come before and the kinetic dynamo for what’s to come. For responsive teachers, students have depth and complexity which make education interesting and possible. Empathizing with students makes us vulnerable, however. We admit there are others beside ourselves, and their worlds are as meaningful as our own. We are not diminished by that connection; we are awakened.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant, and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His latest book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from

Published in AMLE Magazine, October 2014.