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What Does Empathy Have to Do With Teaching?

Most of us can name one or two teachers during our childhood who had a strong, positive influence on us and perhaps is a big reason we are in the education field. One turning point for me was when Mr. Bateman caught me cheating on a math test in 5th grade. The first reaction I felt from him was an extreme disappointment. What followed were immediate consequences at school and at home. However, out of that experience grew a series of lunch conversations and then other casual classroom and hallway conversations which built a relationship of trust and belief in my ability to succeed in spite of my shortcomings.

On the other side of things, as a teacher and school leader, I distinctly remember students with whom I have built trust and relationships through lunch conversations, discipline processes, and casual interactions. What I have learned over the years is how much intentionality plays a part in these most influential interactions and the need to set up systems for them to take place. We often set up our classrooms and structure our lesson plans around what we have learned and experienced but may not always take into account the experiences and perceptions of our students. Taking the extra steps to show initial empathy and compassion opens up doors for student input and relational trust. When using intentional practices to engage students with empathy and compassion, we communicate our desire to understand the source of the conflict, the root of the negative attitude. We learn what the student values, what excites them, and ultimately put pieces of the puzzle together that help us and the student illuminate the amazing and unique potential they have.

Proverbs 22:6 is often read in English as a command to “train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old he will not depart from it.” However, this maxim is not as much about moral or spiritual guidance but rather serves as a guide to seek out the gifts and talents of each one (i.e., “train up a child in the way he should go - and in keeping with his individual bent”). In other words, we have an open door to realize each student’s potential and possibilities by acknowledging their interests, talents, and individual paths toward Christ’s will in their life.

In my session at CDL 6 we will dig into best practices to pursue deeper student engagement. We will develop a plan for gathering and using information such as hobbies, family traditions & rituals, favorite movies & books, and the relationships that mean the most to our students to help us in our choice of classroom novels, writing assignments, and classroom discussions. We will learn how to tap into practices of empathy for the purpose of engaging our students to become better leaders in their own learning process.

1 Peter 3:8 commands us to “be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous.” We are called to compassion and to show empathy, in order to build unity. In our classrooms, we can work both with students individually as well as within an advisory or small group setting to show compassion and empathy for the purpose of building a strong community of learners. Making these connections with our students and their families is one practice that has substantial dividends. The goal of using empathy interviews is to gain a deeper understanding of our students’ experiences at our schools and within our classrooms or sphere of influence in order to help create a stronger classroom culture.


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