Students want teachers who are emotionally present, empathetic to their experiences and who invest in their well-being and success. Teachers crave those same things — empathy, support and investment — from families, school and district leaders and the public. In my experience, there’s an empathy gap for teachers. What I didn’t recognize or acknowledge is that this has created an empathy gap for students as well.
That’s a realization I didn’t come to until hearing a student’s perspective on the issue.
Recently, one of our 12th grade students, Yazmin Walters, composed a presentation in the style of a TED Talk as an independent study project. The project was designed to allow our students to share experiences from their academic careers that they believed were a hindrance to their success. Yasmin delivered her speech at one of our school-based professional development sessions.
Using her own experiences as a struggling student in her early high school years, her talk centered on the achievement gap and her belief that educators’ lack of empathy is a major factor in perpetuating it. Yazmin shared her personal experience as a student who frequently struggled, but worked diligently to improve her academic performance. In her talk, she reflected on being placed on the “promotion in doubt” list in second grade. She was told that in order to be promoted to the next grade she needed a 75 percent average by the end of year. She ended the year with a 73 percent average. Yazmin expressed that the number 73 haunts her to this day. To her, the situation represented not only a setback, but a larger indicator of how she was being seen and supported by the people who were responsible for ensuring her success — her teachers. “I am more than a 73,” she said to us all. “The biggest mistake as an educator … is to make a student feel like nothing but a number.”
It was powerful to hear her perspective. Too often, our students’ voices are not considered when it comes to the issues that affect them most. My heart swelled with pride as I watched her command a room full of educators and speak her truth. But as I left our building later that evening, that feeling of pride was overshadowed by overwhelming frustration.
I was angry. I was tired. I was heartbroken.
Yazmin’s speech sat heavy in my gut that entire night. I felt her words deeply. She was right. Empathy is needed to create safe spaces for those we lead to take risks, learn and flourish. Empathy is undeniably one of the core determining factors in a student’s ability to succeed. Her call to action was directed toward the educators, including me, who she sees as responsible for shaping students’ academic trajectories.
It’s a valid call to action, but how do we show up with empathy for our students when there is no empathy for us? How do we lead with empathy when we are tasked with supporting students despite low wages, little time and the difficulty of navigating the personal challenges we face?
What Even Is Empathy?
In her discussion of the difference between empathy and sympathy, professor and author Brené Brown references nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s four qualities of empathy:
- Perspective taking
- Staying out of judgment
- Recognizing emotion in another person
- Communicating the understanding of another person’s emotions
Wiseman describes perspective taking as seeing and feeling through someone else’s eyes. She also names “recognizing emotion in another person” as a necessary quality of empathy, explaining that in order to truly recognize emotion one must remember what it feels like to feel what that person is experiencing. It was within these two qualities that I connected with Yazmin’s frustrations.
Even as I fought to process my complicated emotions after hearing her speak, I realized that we both wanted the same things. We wanted our feelings to be acknowledged without judgment. We wanted to know that our emotions are recognized and that we are not alone in our struggles. As I grappled with what she shared, I began to think that maybe she was right that the achievement gap isn’t necessarily the problem in education to solve. Instead, maybe it was indeed an empathy gap.
It was hard not to process Yazmin’s experience through all of my conflicting emotions. After all, I am human — a fact that seems to elude the many critics of educators. I felt resentful as I thought about all the times I deprioritized my personal needs to prioritize student needs. However, this was no fault of Yazmin’s. She did not create the conditions that fostered that resentment.
What I Wish I Could Say to Yazmin
One line in particular hit me square in the gut. Yazmin shared that she felt her academic struggles were not a reflection of who she truly was. “I always came to school, did my work, and behaved. However, even when I did all of the things I needed to do, I still flunked.”
What I wished I could share with Yazmin are all the ways the system prevents us from reaching every child that needs us — unreasonable class sizes, not enough prep time, a lack of resources.
I wish I could help her understand how seriously I take my responsibility of ensuring every child that passes through my doorway is academically successful — and how much it weighs on me when they are not. I wish I could show her what little control I have over so many of the factors that determine my ability to give her the education she deserves.
In our school, there can be up to 33 students in a class, and teachers lead four or five instructional periods each day, not counting impromptu coverages, meetings and parent calls. I wish I could illustrate for her how complex it is to move the needle in a classroom where only half of my students are reading on grade level, and a quarter are two grade levels below their assigned grade. I wondered what Yazmin would say if I told her that sometimes teachers start their day being berated with profanities by students or on the receiving end of parents lashing out. I wanted her to understand how taxing it is to be needed each day by 180 children who all deserve empathy, care and academic support.
The Impact of Our Empathy Gap
Ultimately, Yazmin felt reduced to a data point and interpreted this as a lack of empathy, which then negatively impacted her academic performance and emotional development. I wanted to believe that wasn’t true — that we were all better than that. But as I processed my emotions, I couldn’t help wondering if she was right. In our school, numbers have become a priority. The expectation that we get every single child across the finish line (even if they kick and scream the entire way) has become a priority. This is driven by problematic policies crafted by out-of-touch policymakers who often view education as a business.
And guess what: The immense pressure placed on educators to deliver can absolutely result in a lack of empathy for our students. I’ve been guilty of “phoning it in” more often than I’d like to admit. Yasmin’s experience is real and valid. But so is mine.
The expectation that educators become martyrs for the cause is at the core of the teacher shortage across this country and it’s damaging. At one point in her speech, Yazmin shared that for teachers, “payment in teaching shouldn’t be the thing that comes to mind first.” Believe me when I say I wish that was possible.
We want to teach from the place of passion that led us to this work, but the tension is that many teachers have no choice but to hold their salaries in the forefront of their minds. Many are taking on side hustles because their teaching salaries aren’t enough to get by. Some are overextending their personal budgets to ensure that students have their basic needs met. Others give up desperately needed prep periods to comfort children living through traumatic experiences and are struggling with compassion fatigue from absorbing student pain day after day. However, teachers can’t afford the mental health support they may need to help them process all of the pain they carry. Unrealistic expectations, unacceptably low salaries and a growing population of students who need more and more has drained the empathy river dry.
Yazmin concluded her talk with a direct call to action for teachers: “Be the solution and not the problem. When you teach with empathy, you lead with empathy.”
I extend these words to the education policymakers and administrative leaders whose decisions have failed us all. Lead with empathy. Help us bring the most empathetic versions of ourselves to our students who need it the most.