Although I certainly mentioned empathy in a variety of settings last year, I am having conversations with faculty and graduate students about it quite a bit at CTFE events this year. I’m not sure why it seems to be coming up so often, but it is striking how frequently I find myself talking about empathy as the foundation for effective teaching. By this I mean that good teaching ultimately comes from understanding that we are all human beings, that students bring their lives with them into the classroom, that people sometimes have tragedies both small and large that impede their learning process, that there is a time for rigidity and a time for compassion. Ken Bain has a great chapter on empathy in his award-winning What the Best College Teachers Do, and many others have written on the subject, so I don’t claim originality here. I just think it can sometimes be too easy to forget, especially in the midst of a hectic semester, that teaching is fundamentally a human enterprise.
I am always careful to note that being empathetic does NOT mean lowering your standards for learning in any way. It simply means that we are teaching people, not numbers, and we need to allow this to inform our practices. We need to learn names, listen to students’ ideas, and give them space for constructive failure in a low-risk environment. Empathy also allows us to be more fully attuned to the myriad of learning styles our students bring to our classes, so we are more successful teachers when we are empathic.
No instructor is perfect, of course, and it can be a struggle to teach this way sometimes. Indeed, it is a process that waxes and wanes over the course of a career. I know that I certainly have many moments where I wish I had been more empathetic for my students.
Still, I am convinced that empathy is at the heart of good teaching, and I hope to keep spreading the word…