Why Empathy Belongs in a Teacher's Toolbox
Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of guest posts looking at the topic of empathy and education. Using expert commentary from a variety of perspectives, we hope to gain insight and deepen dialogue about the topic.
Our first guest post comes from Nora Cobo, Center for Inspired Teaching. Center for Inspired Teaching was founded by Ashoka Fellow Aleta Margolis, and is a Network Partner in the Activating Empathy competition, which closes this coming Friday, March 30.
When academic achievement is measured only by standardized tests, student success is too simply defined by increasing test scores. Center for Inspired Teaching is working to change this narrow conception by giving empathy a prominent place in a teacher's toolbox.
While test-based assessments are essential, they reflect only one type of data and one kind of skill that students need. Schools must also focus on students’ social-emotional growth in order to create sound learning environments. Such settings help students develop interpersonal competence and improve short- and long-term academic and personal outcomes.
Center for Inspired Teaching partners with teachers to change the school experience for students to include these critical skills. Our professional development programs encourage teachers to rethink their beliefs about how learners learn and how classrooms should function. Through a physical, intellectual, and emotional process, teachers navigate the art of teaching and learn to empathize with their students’ experiences in an energetic and safe environment:
Instead of looking at students’ behavior as something to be corrected, we train teachers to look at students’ behavior in terms of unmet needs. In particular, we ask teachers to consider students’ needs for Autonomy, Belonging, Competence, Developmental appropriateness, and Engagement—the ABCDE of learners’ needs. This applies to situations both academic and interpersonal.
For example, a teacher may encounter a student who repeatedly gets frustrated and leaves his seat to chat with classmates when he encounters a complicated geometry problem. Rather than assuming the student has a bad attitude, the teacher strives to figure out which of the student’s needs is not being met. The teacher may discover that the student learns best when physically engaged – and offer him the option to tackle the equation by measuring distances by walking.
By filling the student’s need for engagement, the teacher also gives him the opportunity to feel competent – thus fulfilling two of his critical academic needs.
Similarly, a teacher may find a student who refuses to work in a group setting, saying she just prefers to work alone. In examining the student’s unmet needs, that teacher may discover that the student longs for more autonomy with her work – and empower that student to create on her own.
The teacher may discover, upon further engaging her skills of empathy, that other members of the group aren’t treating the student kindly, and therefore the student’s need for belonging is not being met when classroom groups are self-selected. This window into the student’s experience allows the teacher to reconsider the structures under which group work is completed.
Through this process, teachers in Center for Inspired Teaching’s programs learn how to place themselves in the role of the learner so they can understand and appreciate students’ way of looking at the world. As a result, our teachers’ ability to empathize, individualize instruction, and engage their students increases significantly. Placing empathy at the core of teachers’ practice ensures that students learn how to think, not just what to think – and go beyond covering the curriculum to learn the skills they need in order to thrive.
Nora Cobo is Project Manager at Center for Inspired Teaching. Center for Inspired Teaching invests in teachers to ensure that schools make the most of children's innate desire to learn.