Empathy, Stress and Teaching Philosophies

On Monday evening, I was in a Zoom conference with some Fall students and fellow doctoral teachers doing an overview of the fall class.  Towards the end of the hour, one student began to vent about the fact that we were not lowering out standards during a time of high stress.  He could not believe that we would impose a weekly paper on them when they were dealing with job insecurity, kids at home for virtual schooling, and worries about COVID-19.

With the help of fellow students, he eventually was calmed.  We pointed out that the rigor was part of the doctoral process, and that watering down the course might set him and others up for failure as they moved into their dissertation research and defense.

The very next night, Michelle Obama gave a powerful speech at the Democratic National Convention.  One statement she made hit home and made me think of the previous night’s student:

Empathy: that’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. The ability to walk in someone else’s shoes; the recognition that someone else’s experience has value, too. Most of us practice this without a second thought. If we see someone suffering or struggling, we don’t stand in judgment. We reach out because, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” It is not a hard concept to grasp. It’s what we teach our children.

In reacting to this student’s concerns, we gave a textbook answer.  But, I now question whether we tried to walk in his shoes.


Kevin Gannon two years ago wrote a blog post that discussed pedagogy and the problem of empathy.  Kevin’s post if worth a full read, but he closes by suggesting that it is more fruitful to advocate for a pedagogy of care rather than a pedagogy of empathy.  I see his point … but empathy as Michelle Obama framed it might be just what we need in our teaching right now, given the pandemic, economic conditions, and tensions over social justice…though I will include the wonderful resources Kevin had on his post at the bottom of this post.

Last April, Schoology posted some tips on why empathy should be part of a virtual classroom management toolbox.  Schoology tends to provide LMS platforms for K12 courses, but some of these points resonated with me.  They started with that oft used phrase”

They don’t care how much you know…

…until they know how much you care,

They go on to note that empathy builds a great online class culture, with words like trust, empathetic, supportive, and caring.

So today, I updated my Teaching Philosophy statement.  I noted:

One of the exciting aspects of teaching with the web is that the possibilities continue to grow, and with these possibilities come endless opportunities for learning. Yet I am also mindful that I am teaching and you are learning in the midst of a crisis of huge import – the global pandemic.  I am also mindful that many students feel stresses today that never existed when I first started teaching.  To riff off Paulo Freire (1970), students are not empty vessels waiting to be filled, they are co-creators of knowledge … and it is co-discovery of this knowledge that makes teaching online so exciting … even in this stressful time!

I had previously noted in my philosophy the idea of a learning community (Palloff &Pratt, 2007)…but I wanted to also use the idea of a community of inquiry from Randy Garrison’s (2017) book, which suggested that teachers and students each come to learning with three presences – cognitive presence, social presence, and teaching presence.  I noted that we need all three of these if we are in this together ,,, and that I recognize and respect the teacher in each of my students…and I recognize the real need for the social side during these times of lockdown.

Community of Inquiry

And I also added a comment about Dee Fink’s (2013) Taxonomy of Significant Learning, because it has three very human dimensions – learning about oneself, learning how to learn, and caring for others.

I closed with something I still believe – that together we can learn more than any of us could learn by ourselves.  I plan to continue reflecting on Michelle Obama’s empathetic points … and will continue to attempt to teach in ways that no only foster knowledge but caring as well.

{Graphics: Watwood, U of Wisc, Vanier College}

Resources listed by Kevin Gannon

Christi Bergin & David Bergin, “Attachment in the Classroom,” Educational Psychology Review 21 (2009): 141-70.

Ellen Cushman, “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change.” COLLEGE COMPOSITION AND COMMUNICATION, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Feb., 1996), pp. 7-28.

Eleni Damianidou and Helen Phlataka, “A Critical Pedagogy of Empathy: Making a Better World Achieveable,” Pedagogies: An International Journal, Volume 11, 2016 – Issue 3.

Jade Davis, “Draft Thoughts on Empathy and Decolonization,” Jadedid.com, June 17, 2018.

Gwynn Dujardin, “Fear and Learning in the Historical Survey Course,” in Lang, Dujardin, and Stanton, eds., Teaching the Literature Survey Course: New Strategies for College Faculty. Teaching and Learning in Higher Education series. West Virginia University Press, 2018.

“Engineers less empathetic than students in caring professions, study suggests,” ScienceDaily, Jan. 17, 2013.

L. Dee Fink, Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. 2nd ed. Jossey-Bass, 2013.

Paulo Freire and Myles Horton, We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Temple University Press, 1990.

Thomas F. Hawk and Paul R. Lyons, “Please Don’t Give Up on Me: When Faculty Fail to Care,” Journal of Management Education 32 (2008).

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994.

bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. Routledge, 2003.

Richard E. Hult, Jr., “On Pedagogical Caring,” Educational Theory 29.3 (1979)

Alfie Kohn, The Brighter Side of Human Nature: Altruism and Empathy in Everyday Life. Basic Books, 1992.

Maureen Linker, Intellectual Empathy: Critical Thinking for Social Justice. University of Michigan Press, 2014.

Sarah C. Motta and Anna Bennett, “Pedagogies of care, care-full epistemological practice and ‘other’ caring subjectivities in enabling education,” Teaching in Higher Education, Volume 23, 2018 – Issue 5: Gender, Post-truth Populism and Higher Education Pedagogies.

Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. University of California Press, 1984.

Johnmarshall Reeve, “Teachers as Facilitators: What Autonomy‐Supportive Teachers Do and Why Their Students Benefit,” The Elementary School Journal 106:3(2006):225-236

Laura I. Rendón, Sentipensante (Sensing/Thinking) Pedagogy: Educating for Wholeness, Social Justice, and Liberation. Stylus Publishing, 2014.

Mia Angélica Sosa, Annmarie Sheahan,Shiv Desai, & Shawn Secatero, “Tenets of Body-Soul Rooted Pedagogy: teaching for critical consciousness, nourished resistance, and healing Critical Studies in Education, 2018.

Carol Ann Tomlinson and Michael Murphy, “The Empathetic School,” ASCD vol. 75, no. 6, March, 2018.

Andrea Velasquez, Richard West, Charles Graham, and Richard Osguthorpe, “Developing Caring Relationships in Schools: A Review of the Research on Caring and Nurturing Pedagogies,” Review of Education 1.2 (2013): 162-90.


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