“As a student, I saw two types of teacher empathy throughout high school. One was focused on creating a safe space in the classroom that was comfortable all the time. That was all well and good, but sometimes the process of learning is not safe. Sometimes you have to be really uncomfortable in order to start developing comfort with a new idea or skill.”
– Hollis, a sophomore in University of Eau Claire, Wisconsin’s education program

“Another type of teacher empathy I saw was one that sought to understand the ‘why’ behind success and failure and then invested in the student accordingly. The teachers who used it were driven to understand each student as an individual so that equitable accommodations could be made. It wasn’t always comfortable in those classrooms, but I knew those teachers were helping me develop the skill to acknowledge where I was at, deal with it, and then move beyond,” Hollis contends.

Why did we choose to be teachers? While the responses may vary, most of those reasons are rooted in a place of empathy. It’s an admirable trait and one that propels many into the profession of education as a way to impact students and change lives. Having coached countless teachers in their classrooms across the United States and internationally, I was privileged to work with some deeply empathetic educators. Over time, I’ve also seen some unsettling patterns emerge. I’ve come to the realization that unless the correct type of empathy is activated in the classroom, empathy can actually serve to perpetuate inequities, rather than lead to transformational practice and increased educational justice.

For this discussion, I’ll talk about two types of empathy: singular and dynamic. Singular empathy, though well-intentioned, can constrain student growth and perpetuate the status quo. This type of empathy treats knowledge about the students as deterministic, which reduces understandings of the whole group to a set of generalizations. Then empathy becomes something that the teacher “does” and the students “receive.”

What does this look like in the classroom? You might see a lack of rigor, with instruction that isn’t always relevant to the students. Often these classrooms have unintentionally lowered expectations for student behavior and achievement, as teachers misunderstand their role as one that creates a safe space where students feel little to no discomfort.

On the other hand, dynamic empathy is one that inherently seeks to build equity. In this classroom, empathy is a skill that is activated and modeled by the teacher while being concurrently taught to students. This way, students learn to activate empathy as an essential component of their learning— not merely a supplement. Teachers who use dynamic empathy view empathy-building as a foundational element of informed classroom practice. In other words, dynamic empathy drives the teacher to understand deeply— and because of a commitment to continual learning, uses it as a tool to make classroom instruction even more relevant.

Dynamic empathy acknowledges that teachers’ knowledge of students is never complete. We recognize that while some understanding of students can be useful in classroom interactions, it can also cause us to generalize about those students when we don’t dig deeper. Dynamic empathy views student storytelling—and knowledge gained from those stories—as a rich, ever-changing process.

Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about the danger of a single story, which can be perpetuated by singular empathy. “So that is how to create a single story: Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become…The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” (Adichie, 2009)

By being willing to listen to narratives that are both beautiful and uncomfortable, teachers create an environment for students to be authentically themselves. When we understand students’ strengths and weaknesses, we can resist the urge to intervene prematurely when they encounter struggles. And when students emerge from the struggle, they’ll be equipped with tools to navigate future challenges. In fact, my hope is that students will model empathy the same way they’re seen from their teachers.

Practicing dynamic empathy isn’t as complex as it might seem. In my experience, effective classrooms include empathy-building as a foundational component of the curriculum. Teachers break down the skills inherent to empathy and then teach those building blocks to students. These teachers are most successful when they provide tangible tools, rather than abstract concepts, for students to use when practicing empathy in their classroom interactions.

Here are a few strategies that you can start using right away:

  • Recognize that there is no “one size fits all” way to work with students. Let student narratives guide you into a place of more individualized responses.
  • Listen to student narratives, but remember to also listen to what is left unsaid.
  • Model empathy in the classroom by being transparent with your successes and failures and inviting students to participate in your process of reflection and learning.
  • Consider retiring classroom rules in favor of developing a co-created culture that allows for more flexibility.
  • Provide empathy scripts for your students to use as tools for sparking empathetic conversations; however, let them know that scripts will be eliminated as students internalize the practice.

Even incorporating a few of these strategies will help you apply the power of empathy. By prioritizing dynamic empathy in the classroom, educators can actively resist singular, deterministic understandings of their students. Instead of buying into oppressive generalizations, they can use dynamic empathy to help students better understand themselves and each other. The result is a generation of young people who are ready to carve out equitable spaces for themselves, both in and out of the classroom.

Amanda Janssen
As Director of Academic Excellence, Amanda Janssen leads Rêve Academy’s innovative education programs and the delivery of educational outcomes. Rêve Academy is a non-profit organization that engages learners in and out of the classroom by exposing them to skills and careers in business, technology and design. She is passionate about dynamic empathy as a foundation to Rêve's curriculum and as a lens for instructional coaching at partner schools in Minnesota.