by Taylor Adcock, PharmD, PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, G.V. (Sonny) Montgomery VA Medical Center
Empathy involves understanding another person’s experiences by imagining oneself in the other person’s situation.1 We live in an increasingly diverse society today and empathy improves social cohesiveness. For this reason, empathy is particularly important in classrooms and influences how teachers and students interact. Studies have shown that cognitive and emotional empathy can promote students’ learning as well as help teachers have a more positive mindset and avoid burnout.2,3,4 Teacher empathy is not a widely talked about subject. This article will look at how teacher empathy can help promote student learning and success.
The term empathy originates from a German word that means "feeling into.” There are two forms of empathy: emotional and cognitive. Most people conceptualize empathy as emotional empathy whereby the individual feels the same emotion as another person. When a person has personal distress, emotional empathy enables us to feel compassion or empathic concern. Empathic concern is typically developed later in life as it builds off and requires more self-control. Empathic concern also triggers prosocial and helping behaviors. Emotional empathy is positively correlated with a willingness to help people even if it requires personal sacrifices.1 Intense emotional empathy is often called empathic accuracy. Empathic accuracy allows a person to have more accurate and complete knowledge about what is going on in a person’s mind and how they feel.
Cognitive empathy is the extent to which we perceive or presuming another person's thoughts and feelings. This can involve an understanding of what someone might be thinking during tasks – from simple tasks to more complex ones. Simple tasks can include visually perceiving standing in a classroom teaching and imagining what another person walking by the classroom might see (observe). Complex tasks can include thinking about what a group might perceive or think. Cognitive empathy still requires sensitivity and knowledge of what other people are thinking and feeling but does not necessarily mean that a person cares about the other person. This means cognitive empathy can be used to harm others. Con artists, for example, have well-developed cognitive empathy in that they understand what others are likely thinking and feeling but they don’t care about the welfare of the person they are taking advantage of. Cognitive empathy is part of our mental development because we grow to understand that another person's thoughts differ from our own.1
Studies that have looked at teacher empathy toward students have found that it can have a positive influence on both students and teachers. One study looked at empathetic climates in the classroom and measured student success.2 Empathetic climates are created when the teacher pays attention to student opinions, values what students have to say, and when students believe the teacher “understands our frame of references”. The study enrolled nearly 500 middle and high-school students. Results from this study showed that an empathetic climate was positively correlated with students’ success even if a class was deemed particularly hard. Success was defined by students ranking their performance in the course using a 6-point Likert scale. The students succeeded, even in difficult classes, if they felt unconditional regard from the teacher.
Another study followed 178 elementary school teachers and looked at the benefits teachers received based on their level of cognitive empathy. Results showed that higher levels of cognitive empathy were associated with lower job burnout, positive mindsets about student behavior, better relationship closeness, and better competence in handling students’ problem behaviors. On the other hand, teachers who experienced high empathetic distress, such as becoming overwhelmed by the student’s emotional experiences, showed that there was higher job burnout, less competence with students’ problem behavior, negative mindsets with misbehavior, and fewer problem-solving strategies.3
There are 4 ways that teachers (you) can create a more empathic climate:4
- Perspective-taking –this means putting aside your perspective and looking at the situation from a different angle. Consider asking, “Do I believe my students are doing the very best they can?” Every student is not going to have the same skill set when it comes to learning which means they may be trying their best already. Encouraging them through a challenging subject is important.
- Putting aside judgment – this means to step back and not jump to conclusions solely based on what is seen. Consider asking, “What more do I need to learn and understand about the situation?” For example, if you have a student who is struggling with assignments and submitting them on time, do not assume that they are lazy. Come in at a different angle and make sure that home life is okay first.
- Trying to understand the student’s feelings – tap into your own experiences to try to find a way to understand what the student is going through or to remember when you went through a similar experience; however, remember that everyone does not feel the same things, and we each have unique experiences. Consider asking, “What more do I need to learn and understand about how other people are reacting to or perceiving the situation?” If a student loses a family member, it is important to try and understand how you felt at this time and then give leniency as the student may or may not have difficulty coping.
- Communicate that you understand – talk to students with reflective phrases such as “It sounds like you…” or “I hear that you…”; this can help build trust and can help students to solve problems, with you in the beginning and eventually on their own. This step requires self-reflection so consider asking, “What more do I need to learn and understand about how I react?” and “What more do I need to learn about how to communicate to others that I hear them, even while experiencing my own emotions?” For example, if a student has many tests one week and is late on assignments, reaching out and say “It sounds like this week may have been overwhelming for you.”
Empathy is understanding what others are feeling and thinking and is associated with helping behaviors even it involves some personal sacrifice. Empathy also involves an understanding that we do not all think in the same manner. Teachers who cultivate an empathetic climate can achieve positive outcomes not only for the student but also for themselves.
- Hodges SD, Myers MW. Empathy. 2007 (Accessed 2021 Sept 11).
- Bozkurt T, Ozden MS. The relationship between empathetic classroom climate and students’ success. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 2010;5:231–4.
- Wink MN, LaRusso MD, Smith RL. Teacher empathy and students with problem behaviors: Examining teachers’ perceptions, responses, relationships, and burnout. Psychology in the Schools. 2021;58(8):1575–96.
- Morin A. Teaching With Empathy: Why It’s Important. Understood.org [Internet]. (Accessed 2021 Sep 11).