Empathy in the Classroom

Understanding the thoughts and emotions of others is a dynamic skill called social perspective-taking (SPT). Politicians, actors, trial lawyers, interrogators, salespersons, and police detectives depend upon this skill for success. A deeper level of SPT is called “empathy,” understanding or sharing another’s thoughts or feelings. This level includes developing rapport or communing with another.

If teachers were to develop a high level of empathy or at least STP, their classrooms would be transformed into active learning sites. Frustration would be reduced. Individualized instruction would be natural. Lesson plans would facilitate interest and motivation. And students would seize learning opportunities.

Furthermore, if teachers could help students to develop a high level of empathy, bullying would decrease and cooperation among students would increase. Students would gain a significant upsurge of useable knowledge.



Filed under Education

34 responses to “Empathy in the Classroom

  1. Joyce R. Dickenns PhD

    Yes, and this could be accomplished if more classes were taught in the ‘Socratic Method’ where each Student participated. It is easy and the Students love it.

    Dr. Joyce R. Dickens
    Broward College
    Ft Lauderdale, FL

    • I concur completely, the Socratic way educes a wonder-full mindful flow from each student to think for themselves and to witness how others’ ponderings on the same matter elicits differing insights, conclusions, etc. Questions are wonderful way to explore, expand, and evolve ideas/learning.

      Why is there such a high level of resistance to teaching for learning AND making the process a delightful one?!

      And, since each child is engaging the questions and the answers, he is learning to communicate and receive his fellow students. Isn’t this opening a door and movement into rapport?

      AKRNA has made an entry into Changemakers’ Activating Empathy: Transforming Schools To Teach What Matters with our Rapport Driven Education: A Collaborative Paradigm of Intelligent Design | Building a Stable Track for Intentional Results. We really need to get the paradigm shift ball rolling.

      Sharon Quinn
      Co-founder & Program Director of AKRNA
      (Antakarana Co_Creation Learning Project)

  2. Yes, students do love the Socratic method, but not many teachers are willing to use it. Perhaps they are overly tied to lesson plans.

    • If a teacher is unwilling to use what is superior methodology as well as emotionally enjoyable, isn’t it time for them to retire? I consider such an unwillingness inappropriate to teaching for learning – that is the job, right?!

      Personally, I’m rather tired of teachers refusing to do and be better at their jobs because the cost is too dear. It is in the lives of the students we fail as our collective future’s become thwarted. How we train our children sets our future sails, and I dare say, I don’t like the current course, do you?

    • Gary Krinberg, Ed.D

      I agree that many are moored to lesson plans, and that with NCLB, Socratic approaches and cognitive/constructivist applications have eroded. The ‘plan to teach, and teach the plan’ has trumped great practices like student centered learning.

  3. Marilyn,

    What you are describing here also fits into the idea of student centered learning and teaching, which is the shortcut to cooperation and individualization in classrooms. However, in addition to developing empathy it requires for the teachers to be aware about learning and teaching being two different processes that happen in the same physical space (classroom).

    • Nina, I like your comment that learning and teaching, though different, are happening at the same time in the same space. Diane also makes a good point about teachers’ reluctance to deviate. Teachers have missed many “teachable moments” because of inflexibility. Rigid teacher evaluations and state assessments may be partly responsible for this hesitance on the part of teachers.

      • Thank you. I could not agree more about the rigid measurements being harmful for creating effective learning environments. I also have hard time imagining empathy grow in a system that does not follow the same rules on all levels (i.e. in teaching and learning, but also in administration – and of course in preparation of teachers!). I do recognize the impossibility for a single one teacher to change the system. I still believe each and every one of us having the choice of emphasizing empathy and collaboration over competition in the classroom, and also creating time for talking and especially for listening.

      • Nina, your comments are very bottom line and I appreciate your passion. I like the idea of rapport as it is more encompassing than empathy. While empathy is a capacity to feel “another’s shoes,” it is in establishing rapport with others than we elevate and integrate empathy into an active state of communicating that begins to come-into-union with them. After all, collaborating requires a certain trust of each other to be honest and work for a win-win outcome.

        From my viewpoint, education can no longer fail to have the skills of the affective domain missing in our classrooms because 21st century living cannot thrive without such abilities, thus, we much teach for this learning with intention, not hope.

  4. Diane Doherty

    I must agree but also support the point about teachers being tied to plans. There is a reluctance to deviate from this prop, to respond to what is happening as the students learn and to react accordingly. Our systems continue to focus on curriuclum content and ‘filling the vessels’ in slots of an hour (or whatever the timetable dictates) instead of considering how students are able to learn to most effectively.


    I would like to know more about socratic method.

    • Perhaps Dr. Joyce Dickenns will respond to your request.

      • The Socratic Method is a favored topic for me. It is about framing your lessons with questions that guide your students to answer the questions. And, as they answer, you ask them appropriate questions leading them toward the answers in a way that they will arrive at what they need to know. This is the opposite of you telling them everything and they have to remember it. In the Socratic dialog, the students have to think, explore their way to the answers, and make the discoveries. It’s fun, interactive, mindful, and intelligent.
        Today, you can have the additional fun of taking their answers into a form of research. EG: “um… so you think “x” is the answer, maybe it is, and maybe it isn’t? How can we find out?” If they need a nudge, you can say, “I wonder if you could research this on the internet, of if you would all come up with the same answer or not…why not go check it out, and let’s get back on this in 15 min!” It is very open ended and excites creativity because the variance of answers can be vast beyond a rote reply.

        I barely nipped the tip of an iceberg here, but the subject is quite popular, and your local library will likely have many resources on the Socratic Method, as would a Google search. I hope this helps.
        All to Love,


        DR. Marlin ,
        I could not get the reply from Dr. Joyce Dickens perhaps due to busy schedule. Request repeated.

      • Rajesh, the Socratic method is a means of teaching through inquiry. The focus is on giving students questions rather than answers, thus leading them to critical thinking. To learn more, you might google “The Socratic Method: Teaching by Asking Instead of by Telling” by Rick Garlikov. Or you might check the Wikipedia definition of Socratic method.

  6. Gihan

    Very true! Empathy is one more step in class management. It is something that goes beyond rules, routines and procedures and it fosters engagement.
    Not only that the teachers are tied to lesson plans, it needs a skillful teacher and a curriculum that allow this.
    Thanks Dr, Marilyn, I will definitely share this note in my next professional development session next week,

  7. I once read that only about 12% of the American people have empathy. I hope that is wrong. The best human beings I know get into the heads – lives – of others and share themselves on that level. We have all dealt with the cold, non-engaging personalities of self-centered and self-absorbed individuals. Ouch! They hurt. You have identified one of the major qualities an administrator must look for when evaluating teachers. I think (assume) the teaching profession is self-selecting in that those without SPT skills don’t make it.
    Ed Berger

    • I wish that teachers without SPT skills did not make it into classrooms. Some do in Texas. And they continually struggle with classroom discipline and with parent conferences.

  8. Roger, May I suggest a further resource to learn more about empathy and compassion.
    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews,  videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.

  9. Wow, small world Edwin!
    The Culture of Empathy site is a great resource for diving into the world of empathy.

    At AKRNA, we have have taken this issue to heart and developed a curriculum to train a new breed of teachers called, The Matea Model. They will be adept at rapport driven education and will be able to educate from a new paradigm capable of graduating students as 21st prepared adults. Isn’t it time we start a parallel system that can model the change we are all talking about here into a viable reality, so others can see how well it works and have a model they can emulate? Once people can see how well it works, they will have more confidence to change. And, making it replicable is going to be a key to success because having a track to run on is more inviting than pioneering the initial path!

    Also, Dr. Marilyn, I love your byline… “Igniting a child- like curiosity- my jog as an educator”, Thank you for blogging!
    All to Love,

  10. Joya G.

    “Training teaching interns and teachers to be empathtic is difficult”.- Dr. M.
    I agree. Perhaps Courses in Leadership could be one way of going about this? And are there specific sites on Leadership that one could access for help in this area?
    I believe that a single teacher/individual can effect Change within existing systems ~ examples abound.

  11. I suppose that leadership courses do help educators. However, character and integrity enter into the equation. Heart and perhaps soul seem to be involved in the classrooms of magically compelling teachers.

    • I agree wholeheartedly with you that teaching empathy is a high level equation consisting of a multitude of skills that are integrally owned within the heart and soul of the educator, thus, making them leaders of the inspiring kind. The question is, “Do we have the will rise collectively rise to learning the lesson for ourselves so we can add them to our pallet of teaching resources?

  12. At least there are more discussions about the need for change. That is uplifting, not enough but a first step.

  13. Jill Kaufman

    Dr. Hill,

    Empathy and feeling for others is not always reflected in classrooms by teachers. Teachers are under a lot of pressure with high stakes testing and the NCLB act. They often do not take the time to be empathic toward students which as you reflected would develop a more productive classroom. Students who feel that their teachers truly care about them perform better in the classroom and trust their teacher, therefore; they are willing to take risks in learning and advance. Students lose confidence and begin a self-fulfilling prophecy and all hope is lost for the student creating a reflection of a poor work performance in the classroom when there is not a teacher/student connection.

  14. sesamenerd

    I think this is a fascinating concept and, as a student, I can see the effects of teachers having empathy has on learning. It is so important today for teachers to inspire a need to learn in their students, so that the learning goes beyond the classroom. In one of my child development classes, my professor discussed how hands-on and interactive learning can affect the long term memory of such lessons. This is so true. The lessons and information I remember are the ones where I felt engaged and that the teacher truly cared what I had to contribute to the lesson.

    • Yes, if teachers would just think about the lessons that inspired them, maybe they would be energized to create hands-on, interactive lessons for their students. This kind of teaching is more work than the old “worksheet” planning.

  15. Judy Hill Henriquez

    Students know when teachers develop high levels of empathy in the class room. During an after school program students were asked to contribute something to present to a teacher who was retiring. One 8 year old wrote of the many attributes of the teacher, which included empathy. When asked what empathy meant she replied “when a teacher has feelings and cares for us”. One could conclude that the emphatic teacher has an effect on learning.

  16. I wish there was a “like” button constructed into this website. 🙂

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