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Encouraging Empathy: The Role of a Teacher

March 2022

“In an era when differences of race and religion, the extremes of wealth and poverty, and the dilemma of global warming dominate our new headlines, never has it been so necessary to develop the quality of empathy, to heal a fractured and fearful global society. … Understanding comes with experience and education, and empathy can be part of that education.”

This quote comes from the first page of Bridget Cooper’s 2011 book, Empathy in Education: Engagement, Values and Achievement. Although this book was published over a decade ago, Cooper’s words remain startlingly relevant today in the midst of global tensions around social inequality, power imbalance, and international relationships. So how can we encourage empathy in present and future generations of teachers and learners? As Cooper suggests, “all humans have the potential for empathy”, the question is how we unlock that potential.

An image visualising teacher empathy.

Teachers and Empathy

Cooper goes on in her book to argue that “having people around us who model this quality [empathy], including teachers, seems to support positive interaction and allows us to feel valued and enables us to value others.” (39-40). Teachers are not counsellors or therapists, and it would be unfair for one to expect them to play that role on top of the many roles they already play. Nevertheless, in the same way that a counselling patient may find an empathetic environment more conducive for learning about themself, students who are in an empathetic classroom environment are better equipped to learn about themselves, others and new subject matter (Cooper 2011).

It sounds oversimple, but a supportive and empathetic classroom environment has been shown to be a significant influence on student learning and motivation. Ge et al. (2021) argue that teacher empathy plays a vital role in student development and personal professional development, going as far as to suggest that “education is not complete without teacher empathy;” without it “teachers are teaching to transmit content instead of teaching the students”. Murphy et al. also suggest that teacher empathy can be an effective method of reducing the likelihood of bullying, whilst also increasing an individual’s ability to tackle bullying effectively (2018).

Empathy as a Tool Against Hate

Moreover, research suggests that empathy not only encourages student engagement in learning but also helps to achieve social justice across diverse backgrounds (Ge et al., 2021). Empathy is a powerful tool for promoting equality, interpersonal awareness, and acceptance of others, and teachers can play a key role in developing this empathy (Murphy et al., 2018). The reasoning behind this is quite simple: research shows that children mimic the behaviours of adults they respect, so when teachers show empathy, pupils will emulate their empathetic behaviour (Murphy et al. 2018, Cooper 2011).

Additionally, researchers into teacher empathy suggest it is a key tool in promoting pro-social values and a supportive environment for all. Meyers et al. (2019) outline the two types of empathy that make teacher empathy so effective:

  1. Interpersonal empathy, where one person understands the internal state of another person, motivating them to be sensitive and responsive to that person’s needs.
  2. Social empathy, the ability to understand people different to oneself and consider how their lived experiences feed into structural and systemic inequalities.

In hoping to instil empathy in our children, we hope that they will learn to value others and understand that their differences are not a bad thing, but something to be celebrated.

A Model for Encouraging Empathy

Encouraging empathy is important, but it can seem like a colossal task. Meyers et al. (2019) suggest three strategies that teachers can implement to demonstrate (and therefore encourage) empathy:

An example of a Primary school classroom which is demonstrating and example of teacher empathy.

  1. Develop interpersonal empathy with students: by understanding a student’s needs and motivations, teachers can better respond to those needs and motivations and are more likely to foster empathy and other positive traits such as clear communication and a growth mindset.
  2. Develop social empathy: when a teacher is aware of the personal contexts of their students, they are able to adapt their teaching to suit the individual needs of that pupil (a physically disabled pupil will have different needs than a physically able pupil, for example).
  3. Design classroom policies that reflect this empathy: understanding a pupil’s motivations or personal and social contexts is good, but its usefulness is limited without putting this understanding into practice. Designing class rules that meet the needs of students is a sure-fire way to demonstrate and encourage empathy.

TSP has worked extensively with practitioners to create T-Insight, a scenario-based learning approach to teacher education. Our scenarios are designed to develop key non-cognitive attributes, such as empathy, which have been shown to be possessed by effective teachers at all stages of their career. Modules focus on issues that many pre-service or beginner teachers struggle with, such as behaviour management and working with parents. Candidates can develop their capacity for empathy and learn how to put it into practice in a realistic school setting while receiving feedback from experienced teachers, and being given the opportunity to reflect on their learning. Follow the links to find out more about T-Insight and the research behind it.

Further Reading:

Cooper, Bridget (2011). Empathy in Education: Engagement, Values and Achievement, Bloomsbury. 

Ge, Y., Li, W., Chen, F., Kayani, S., and Qin, G. (2021). “The Theories of the Development of Students: A Factor to Shape Teacher Empathy From the Perspective of Motivation.” Frontiers in Psychology, 12, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.736656.

Meyers, S., Rowell, K., Wells, M., and Smith, B. C. (2019). “Teacher Empathy: A Model of Empathy for Teaching for Student Success”, College Teaching, 67(3), 160-168,
DOI: 10.1080/87567555.2019.1579699.

Murphy, H., Tubritt, J., O’Higgins Norman, J. (2018). “The role of empathy in preparing teachers to tackle bullying.” Journal of New Approaches in Educational Research, 7(1), 17-23, DOI: 10.7821/naer.2018.1.261.