The Empathetic Professor: How to Teach With Empathy

Learn tips on how to teach online with empathy

As part of our series on equity in education, we want to explore ways educators can offer better solutions to help students to ensure an equitable learning environment. As COVID uncertainties remains high, many educators wonder how they will be able to connect with their students at a more human-level. While the teaching is being done remotely, it is difficult for the teachers to keep a check on the well-being of their students.

In this article, we break down what empathy actually entails and how educators can implement it in their online classrooms.

What is empathy?

Empathy is a form of connection that allows you to place yourself in someone else's shoes and understand what they are experiencing, how they feel in a given situation rather than sympathizing with the person's feelings. It's the comforting voice that we tell each other when we are told, "You are not alone."

Empathy is not about feeling sorry for someone, but rather, seeing a person as equal or on the same level as yourself, and trying to understand or connect with them.

Types of empathy

According to most researches, empathy has two distinct types. Affective empathy and Cognitive empathy. It is easy to understand and practice it when described in these terms. There are other types of empathizes as well like Intellectual empathy and is related to knowledge.

Affective empathy involves the ability of an individual to understand another person's feelings and emotions and being able to compassionately respond to it.

Cognitive Empathy is the ability of a person to be able to understand the other person's perspective and comprehending that why the other person has developed it.

Practicing both cognitive and emotional empathy is challenging. It is believed that both can be learned with intention and consistent practice and a balance between both should be maintained.

Components of empathy

There are different components of empathy. Including them in your teaching practice can show students that you're thinking in their best interest.

1. Perspective taking

To understand what someone else is feeling, without being biased by your own feelings or experiences. The feelings of the individual are put forth and assessment of situation is from your students' eyes. To do that effectively, you must understand the complex web of context that allows for that event to occur. Asking yourself questions helps with you staying at their perspective like what is the point of view that may have developed due to the person's experiences in the past?

For example: if a student submits an assignment late because they had to work and didn't have time to complete it, you might tell them that they need to understand their priorities better or that they cannot receive an extension. What if the story behind that late-assignment is that the student lives in a single-parent home, their mother can't work because she is sick, and the student's side job is the only income available to pay for school and living costs. Does that story change your perspective on the student's late assignment? Being able to see events and occurrences from other standpoints is the first step in building empathy.

2. Non-judgmental

When faced with a situation, it's easy to react based upon our judgments or opinions about the circumstances. Put aside your judgement, take a moment to ask yourself what other pieces of information do I need to understand this situation better?

3. Understanding how others feel

It's helpful to reflect on our own experiences and how we may have felt at a particular time when encountered with a similar situation. But we must always remember that people's feelings are unique to them based upon their exceptional circumstances. Therefore, we cannot merely extrapolate how we felt to be the same as how one should feel, given a similar situation.

4. Let your students know you understand

When discussing situations with your students, try using reflective language such as "I hear and understand your concerns…" to show empathy. Being able to create a space by another person, be it their school teacher, where students don't feel judged will go a long way in ensuring that they feel comfortable addressing concerns with you.

Why a teacher should be empathetic:

A teacher is responsible for curriculum delivery and syllabus completion. While a lot of attention is given to the knowledge delivery, assessments and classroom management, a lesser degree of prioritization are the emotional dimensions of a student in the school culture. Feeling for another person and recognizing why others feel that way are essential to becoming a more empathetic teacher. Empathy is a powerful tool that can help a teacher to better understand what’s driving their students’ behavior and find strategies to help then while maintaining a perfect balance between both types. An imbalance can cause a strain in the student-teacher connection.

“The best teachers teach from the heart, not from the book.” - Horace Mann

How to bring empathy into your classroom

1. Be accommodating

Create a space for the students where they feel safe and understood. The pandemic has turned so many of our lives upside down; outside of school, students grapple with job losses, increased feelings of isolation and depression, and higher anxiety levels as their future remains uncertain among the students of high school. Have flexible due dates for assignments, and move past participation and attendance grades as some students may not be able to attend classes regularly. Arrange small group discussions or mentoring sessions where each student can speak up and their issues can be directly addressed. That can help favor bigger changes in the long run.

One of the biggest challenges students face with online learning is the lack of personalized feedback they receive on their assessments. Lack of personalized feedback coupled and reduced student-teacher communication hinders a students overall learning.

2. Asynchronous & flexible learning

With online learning, educators don't need to have a set time block for live lectures. Move your course towards asynchronous learning to allow students greater flexibility in how they want to structure their learning. To provide a better learning experience to the students, instead of a 3-hour lecture, create smaller pre-recorded videos and include case-studies and mini-assignments that allow students to take an active part in their learning, rather than simply listening to a lecture.

3. Curate different viewpoints

Many students feel disenfranchised with their learning because of their history, or their unique story is not represented in the teachings of an educator. Utilizing assessment forms like peer evaluation allows students to be exposed to different point of views, mainly, the opinions and understandings held by their peers. Suddenly a class of 80 college students is no longer being assessed by a single individual (the professor), but rather a diverse group of student peers. Being exposed to different perspectives broadens a student's understanding of a concept beyond that taught by a teacher.

4. Create an Empathetic Classroom culture

Each classroom has a unique culture that can be developed in the start of the session by asking students questions like how would they like to be treated and tested. Each student is unique and should get an individual attention. Small activities that conclude with lessons of empathy should be carried out. This develops a feeling of empathy for students from different culture united together on the benches of the same classroom.

Bob Sornson; Through empathy, he explains, students learn to understand each other, which helps them to build friendships based on positive relationships of trust, in turn improves the student behavior overall.

How empathy affects learning

Science states that students who have had an empathetic environment for learning has an higher capacity of learning. Empathy drives a student to learn. Educators who practices empathy while teaching indirectly teaches empathy to their students. This helps students feel safe and welcomed, which in-turn helps to build strong classroom community. Empathy also has a direct influence on academic achievement and help students be better listeners, colleagues and develops in them self regulation skill in the long run.

Effects of lack of empathy

lf a teacher shows lack of empathy to his students, they will now be motivated, and so learning will be difficult. It may also result in conflicts between the teacher and the student.


Empathy is an important skill and a tool, that needs to be learnt and practice. Many institutes carry out professional development for their teachers emotional learning. Good teachers very well know how the inside feelings of a student are reflected on his facial expressions. He also has learnt how to address the emotions. A teacher's empathy helps develop meaningful connections with his students.

This teaching tool of social psychology helps to better communicate with students and facilitates a better learning environment. When used correctly, it allows students to feel confident that they can excel to their full potential, regardless of the setbacks they may encounter.

In the short term, it may affect the grades and achievements of a student in a positive manner while in the long term it helps them to manage their emotions as well be better listeners and understand others and thus good friends and colleagues.

Chris Palazzo
Marketer & Educator. Blending the two here at Kritik