Every day, I hear teachers and kids alike, complaining about the meaningfulness of school. Teachers complain that kids are not engaged. Kids complain that they are not engaged because their learning is not relevant. We can fight this tension. We can continue to argue that kids don’t know what they don’t know. We can argue that they can’t possibly do the “fun” stuff without all the boring background knowledge. We can continue to believe that certain kids aren’t independent enough to do relevant learning tasks. We can do that. The reality is that these kids probably have a better idea (or at least as good of an idea) of what they will need to know in their futures than we do. I know that my high school teachers didn’t have a clue that I would need the skills I need with the technology that exists today. What if we just considered that our students could at least be collaborators in their learning objectives? If you are willing to at least consider that idea, feel free to keep reading. Otherwise, you will just be annoyed.

Empathy is a number one skill needed for this type of relevance to be present in classrooms. For students and teachers alike, in order for both parties to feel more meaning in their classrooms, they need to be able to have empathy. There are so many reasons that this skill has become even more important in our current time (not that it wasn’t always important). With the advent of automation, relationships have become imperative in order to stand out. Empathy is at the center of developing meaningful relationships. As a teacher, it is essential that empathy for learners is at the center of our design process. If we are to develop classrooms that are innovative, we must start by standing in the shoes of our constituents. Empathy, at its most simple, is the ability to understand another person’s feelings. Businesses and start-ups take very seriously the feelings, problems, and needs of their customers. We can use the same thinking to design curriculum and instruction that is relevant to our students.

So, How do we develop empathy as well as build empathy?

Stand in other’s shoes

Don’t assume our kids are just lazy and doomed to be bored. I listened to faculty members drone on about how boring and useless in-service this past Monday. We only have in-service 4 times a year. Our kids have “in-service” six hours a day, 176 days a year. Imagine if we had in-service every day, all day. The Shadow a Student project encourages teachers and administrators to follow a student around for just one day in order to gain a perspective on what students are managing every day.  To be honest, the thought of just riding the bus puts me over the edge. When I think about these examples, I find it easy to empathize with my students. 

Learn about your students both inside and outside of school

Asking about your student’s lives outside of school can connect you in other ways to your students. Just being curious about other people is a skill associated with empathy. You will find you have things in common with your students and that can be a way to connect. It sends them the message that you are more than just a teacher of a subject but that you care about what is important to them (even if that isn’t what you are responsible for teaching them).

Engage with your kids outside of your classroom

Engaging with kids through extracurricular activities like sports or activities like our recent corn hole tournament or even a field trip where you are just out of the classroom routine can help develop relationships.

Find Commonalities

Getting to know students on another level in order to identify things you may have in common can help you see your students in another light. Sometimes kids who don’t have academic confidence may have a common interest with you that will allow you to connect.

Actively try to understand the thinking and motivation of the learners with whom you have grave differences

Part of being empathetic is just genuinely being interested in another’s point of view. Seeing severe disagreement as an opportunity allows for you and the other person to try and understand another perspective and the motives that may have led to that perspective. This doesn’t mean you are convinced but the practice of trying to understand builds empathy.

Share your passions and interests 

Students like to know you are a real person. Many times, teachers are on a pedestal; perfect people with all the answers. When students can see us as humans, it can help them feel more open and human toward us. We can become collaborators, more equal, and ultimately it allows students to feel more comfortable being imperfect in their learning, asking for help, or coming to you with issues.

Just Listen

Instead of trying to solve problems when others are struggling, just listen and show that you are listening by reflecting back what the person has shared.

We have all experienced when we share a problem and get a bunch of advice back that we really don’t want. Sometimes we just want to be heard and then we want to solve the problem ourselves. Give kids the same respect. It is fine to just hear kids and ask what they want help with. Or just hear them.


Apologize, acknowledge, or admit when you have made a mistake or said or done something hurtful. Again, this makes you human. You are showing that you understand how your behavior possibly impacted another human being.

In all of the situations, you are modeling empathetic behavior. This is an important skill that our students are going to need as they begin to work in an automated work-force where relationships are going to get them a lot further than being able to comply. And as I started out this post by saying, with all this new information about the learners in our classrooms, we should seriously consider designing our curriculum and instruction for the user.


Comments 1

  1. Pingback: Coaching for Innovation - Fearless Teachers

Leave a Reply