Saturday, June 21, 2014

Can you teach empathy?

As I read Part One of This is Not a Test and the wonderful summary by Michael Pershan at, one thing kept running through my mind—it is about empathy.  Can we teach people to be empathetic? 

Vilson’s experience in English 11 Honors with a teacher who he described as legendary—“revered for his intellect and mastery of his subject.”  This teacher’s reputation made Vilson excited about being a student in his class.  Yet it is very clear from Vilson’s experience that this teacher lacked empathy and didn’t really care about his students because if he did care, he would never have treated Vilson so poorly.  While I agree that it is important for a teacher to be a master of his/her content, content knowledge is not enough to make one a good teacher.  A teacher must have empathy and care for his/her students.

Growing up in rural South Dakota, I had very little experience with diverse populations.  However, I was very curious about diversity at a young age.  In 4th grade, I decided to write a report about the life of George Washington Carver because his story is amazing.  During my sophomore speech class in high school, I chose to write a speech about Malcolm X after reading his autobiography.  Their stories inspired me and helped me become more empathetic.  This quality of empathy has helped me become a better teacher, and has helped me in my role of preparing future teachers because I continuously remind me students that they don’t know what is going on at home in their students’ lives.

When you look at all of the people that had a positive influence on Vilson, they all cared about him as a person and they had empathy.  The response of his counselor when he stated that his winter break was spent mourning because of the death of his aunt showed a lack of empathy.  Is that her fault or the fault of her counseling preparation program?  Again, the question is:  can we teach empathy? 
While I don’t disagree with Vilson that students of diverse backgrounds need teachers with similar backgrounds as role models, it is more than the color of your skin.  I suspect that Vilson’s students are more willing to talk to him because they can tell that he truly cares about them, he believes in them, and he has empathy for them.  Not all of Vilson’s role models resembled him—some were white, but they ALL believed in him.

This week I organized a conference for my NSF Noyce scholarship program that provides scholarships for pre-service science and math teachers.  I am always so proud of this alumni and how great they are doing in their first years of teaching.  We had a special session this year on “Working with Troubled Teens.”  The alumni panelists had just finished their first year of full-time teaching, one teaching in a district with a high percentage of Native American students and one working in an inclusion program for 8th grade male students that were headed down the wrong path.  Neither of these teachers had the same background as their students, but yet they shared stories of students that they had impacted this year.  One Native American student had a D or F in science the first quarter and then earned an A fourth quarter.  One of the 8th grade males completed an assignment for the first time in 3 years.  These teachers had success because they care about their students and have empathy.  In fact, they had veteran teachers approaching them and asking them what they are doing to get these kids to do work in their class.  They believed in their students!

Another one of my alumni took a math teaching position in a district in South Dakota with a large number of ESL students.  He admitted to me that he was nervous about this—partially because we don’t spend enough time on diversity in our teacher preparation program.  I saw him 6 months later at a conference and he told me, “I would rather have an entire class of ESL students because they want to learn.”  He had a preconceived idea of what to expect and found that he truly loved teaching ESL students because they value learning.

Back to Michael’s question about making personal experiences into policy.  Here are my thoughts—we need to spend more time in our teacher preparation programs discussing social-emotional learning and diversity and their impact on students’ motivation and content understanding.  It is clear from Vilson’s experiences that these are tied and I believe that we can do something about it.  These are discussions that we need to have within our teacher preparation programs and that needs to happen now.  When I look at my alumni from the Noyce scholarship program, I realize that they are all great teachers because they truly care about their students and believe in them.   Is that because they are new teachers and haven’t become jaded by the educational system?  I don’t know.  But it still comes back to the question—can we teach someone to care and have empathy? 


  1. I am unsure of the answer to this question. Empathy comes from personal experiences, and how can we provide these experiences in the design that universities have developed for teachers?

    I will say this, I teach close to the area I was raised. My high school used to compete against the one I now teach in, so I have known about the community all my life. I ended up marrying a graduate of the school I now teach in. Her mother taught in the district for 26 years, and she has lived there all of her life. I have the honor of learning from them about families in the community and also events that shaped community dynamics.
    When I first started teaching, I was new to the profession, and fairly young and not ready for a "real job". I was able to connect with students (but not blur the lines of professionalism) because I too shared an exuberance for life. As I stayed there for a while, I noticed that my ability to empathize with students started to dwindle as I started looking at my job as my profession- I was "growing up". Then I noticed another shift, that was when I had my first child. Now, once again, I can readily emphasize with students and normally I am sensitive to their needs before they express them- since I now also look at things through my children's eyes.
    Personal experiences within the student's community, home and family is what every teacher needs- and that can't be done at the university level. It needs to be done at the school district level so it can be personalized to the population of students you will have.

  2. Bryan--I completely agree with you. It does need to come from personal experiences, but can we do a better job of creating more of those real experiences during their teacher preparation program. Let me give you an example--in one of the Education courses on my campus, they do an activity called a 'Poverty Simulation.' During this simulation, each student is given a role and they have to act out that role. For example, someone might be a single mother with 3 kids. While I think that it may be a good idea, why not actually send the students to serve food to low-income people or to one of our reservations to see the living conditions that some students face.
    I feel like we need to give them more real experiences that are authentic rather than contrived ones. Otherwise, they don't really have the opportunity to really empathize.