On Becoming a Teacher – Part II – Empathy


June 23, 2010 by Willy Cardoso

Very commonly teachers need to deal with students’ feelings of frustration, disappointment, anxiety, etc. When asked how they cope with it and how they motivate students, many say that they try to talk and understand what causes the frustration or anxiety.

The next step though is rather blurry. Some teachers are able to play better the role of a counselor and give advice on how to overcome the situation, some others are able to act as an entertainer/motivator and show the bright and fun side of learning, and some other ones can tell students about their own learning experience and how everything turned out fine once they did so and such.

As far as my experience goes, teachers consider the above as good practice. All in all, we want our students to see that we accept their feelings and are willing to help. However, it is important to pay close attention to this “we accept”.

We know that learning is dependable on psychological safety. So, if we say “I accept you”, but know nothing of you, this is a shallow acceptance indeed, and you realize that it may change if I actually come to know you. But if I understand you empathically (…) then this is safety indeed. (Rogers, 1961:358)

I have recently had amazing conversations with some teachers and students about empathy, and very often this construct is ambiguous to them, most of the time it’s mistaken for sympathy.

Sympathy is an agreement in feeling, it’s also a kinship, an acceptance expression. In Psychology it’s better defined as a relationship between persons in which the condition of one induces a parallel or reciprocal condition in another.

Empathy, most often refers to a vicarious participation in the emotions, ideas, or opinions of others, the ability to imagine oneself in the condition or predicament of another.

(source: dictionary.com)

Notice that in empathic understanding the educator doesn’t necessarily agree with the learner, neither induces a reciprocal condition. Instead, she is able to step aside from where she stands and enter in the world of the learner, for a moment in this relationship she neglects her experience, values, opinions, and puts herself in the other’s shoes.

The illustration made on the second paragraph is valid, of course, but it seems that they are all ways to provide extrinsic motivation. My contention in this series is that through a more humanistic approach, so far characterized by realness and empathy, we can attempt to facilitate learners’ intrinsic motivation. The educator’s experience, expertise and external referential point are all extrinsic to the learner (accidentally intentional overuse of ex- here). Thus, not enough – my perception. More in(s) please.

I now feel obliged to extensively quote C. H. Patterson (1985).

“Empathy, of course, is not a trick, nor is it simple. Our society is externally oriented; we do not normally or easily see things from another person’s point of view. We are too preoccupied with our own frame of reference. On the other hand, once we know what it means, most of us can relatively easily assume temporarily another’s point of view.

Students are also often bothered by the apparent subjectivity of empathic understanding. They are obsessed with the need to obtain ‘objective facts’. But the so-called facts are nothing more than the subjective perceptions and impressions of other observers, usually with added evaluative or judgmental aspects.”

I also feel that to conform to the subjectivity and ideology of this post I don’t need to come to a conclusion. (clever me ? : )

Instead, I invite you to join me in the conversation.



Patterson, C.H. Empathic Understanding

Rogers, Carl R. Empathic: An Unappreciated Way of Being

the links above take you to the original articles



7 thoughts on “On Becoming a Teacher – Part II – Empathy

  1. kfbunny says:

    I think we all usually try empathizing with our students, but unless you are able to come from an objective place, cannot fully separate our experiences and attitudes to truly put ourselves in our students’ shoes. Beyond that, empathy (or some reasonable resemblance of it) can take some time, which we may not have in class itself.

    Yesterday in class, I was teaching a vocabulary lesson. Students got stuck on one expression in particular, “fair enough”. They continued to ask more and more questions about its meaning and I started to become frustrated. I wondered, why can’t you guys get this? It’s the easiest one. At this moment, being empathetic would have been ideal, but there wasn’t much time for me to give it the full effort and I was unable to see it from their point-of-view.

    It was later that I realized their questions (and evidently my explanation) didn’t address contextual usage as it did with meaning. Did I come to this because of emphathizing with my Ss’ feelings about this expression or did I do so because of drawing on previous teaching experience? Good question.

    • Yes, it takes time. But if we don’t have time to do it, we should start reappraising our agenda and the school’s curriculum. I don’t mean teachers have to be psychologists, they don’t, but there are some things that are not instructional that can’t be neglected, for me, empathy is one of them.

      It seems to me that that example of yours was based on experience. Empathic understanding is not really finding a way out, you’ll find a way out partly based on your previous experience. Instead, it would be being more patient for example and not becoming frustrated, it would be allowing students to get stuck, acknowledge that this is part of their development, and help them to become aware of that.

  2. leozeh says:

    Great discussion Willy.

    I think first and foremost it is easier to deal with students sense of frustration by trying to put ourselves in the student’s shoes. I have tried to learn 3 other languages – besides English – and I think I’m usually quite successful at empathizing with them.
    Try to stay positive. Sometimes things are not as bad as they seem. Students tend to exaggerate and I understand this because I’m a learner. Sometimes things look worse just because they’re mentally tried or drained. Taking a break, moving on and keeping a good sense of humor usually help.

    As the great American Businessmen Bo Bennet once said “Frustration, although quite painful at times, is a very positive and essential part of success.”

    Being frustrated is part of learning any language. It’s a long and winding road and dealing with all those feelings is just one obstacle!

    • Wise comments Leo!
      It makes a big difference indeed when the teacher has gone through the process of learning a second/foreign language.
      This perception of when students are tired or exaggerating and of how they respond to your stimuli is as important as content-knowledge.
      Frustration is there all the time, right? The secret is to know how to use it for growth. Quite a challenge!

  3. GNA says:

    Hi Willy.

    I appreciate your interrogation of the role of empathy in the act of teaching and learning. Are you familiar with the scholarship of Nel Noddings? One of her essays, “Caring in Education,” came to mind while reading your post. http://www.infed.org/biblio/noddings_caring_in_education.htm

    Noddings presents a contrast between idealized care and relational care between teachers and students. I believe this piece may resonate with you.


    • Thank you GNA! I really liked the article.

      I’ve been reading a lot on infed.org, it’s a great source, I wasn’t familiar with the work of Noddings though. I’ll certainly look for more.
      It’s interesting that he mentions Dewey and the concept of environing forces. It’s good food for thought:
      How good (or bad) I can be depends in substantial part on how you treat me. (moral interdependence)

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