Seven Characteristics of Profoundly Empathic Teachers

In this article Kieran Donaghy, director of The School for Training and tutor on our Empathy in Language Teaching course, explores the seven characteristics of profoundly empathic teachers.

Empathy has been defined by Roman Krznaric as ā€˜the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actionsā€™ (Krznaric, 2014, p. x).

Empathy and high-quality relationships are central to all successful learning and development (Gkonou & Mercer, 2017). However, in language education empathy is particularly important because of its focus on communication, social interactions and cultural diversity (Mercer, 2016).

Bridget Cooper of the University of Sunderland, argues that teacher empathy can be traced along a continuum from functional to fundamental to profound (Cooper, 2011). Profoundly empathic teachers go beyond positive and affirmative behaviour and model understanding of self and others for their students. In this article I am going to explore the seven characteristics of profoundly empathic teachers proposed by Bridget Cooper.


1 Profoundly empathic teachers create positive emotions and interactions with their students. They realise that positive personal interaction needs individual quality time and they make time for these positive interactions with students before and after class, in breaks, at lunchtime and after school. One way they create theses positive interactions and build empathic relationships with their students is to use humour. They prefer warm and friendly relationships to cooler, more formal relationships and feel a relaxed, informal atmosphere supports communication and openness. Sometimes studentsā€™ behaviour may make teachers feel negative emotions, but these teachers try to mask these negative emotions for the studentsā€™ benefit. They do not interpret poor behaviour as fixed, but seek strategies to unleash their studentsā€™ potential. Profoundly empathic teachers realise that only by treating students with concern, respect and fairness, can they get the best from them. They believe that respect has to be mutual for them to build positive relationships.


2 Profoundly empathic teachers know themselves. They know the importance of being themselves, being human, being approachable and a real person who has a life and loves outside the classroom. They are happy being themselves and know their strengths and weaknesses. This self-knowledge helps these teachers to make good emotional and academic decisions about learning and teaching strategies. These profoundly empathic teachers also try to get inside their studentsā€™ thinking and feelings, and look at the world from their perspective. They try to acquire understanding of both their studentsā€™ academic and personal lives, and educate students both in the academic sphere and the personal sphere. Profoundly empathic teachers believe their own childrenā€™s experiences enable them to be more empathetic and flexible, and they treat students as if they were their own children.


3 Profoundly empathic teachers appreciate the importance of relationships in teaching and learning. They realise how important the teacher/student relationship is to motivation and achievement, and feel that high-quality relationships help to set secure boundaries, and enable good communication. They remember their own relationships with teachers when they were students and their own childrenā€™s relationships with teachers, and this helps to guide their actions. These teachers understand that good relationships in school could provide the consistency and stability many students lack at home. These profoundly empathic teachers also feel that positive staff relationships are important in schools and that high-quality teacher/parent relationships can help to enhance learning.


4 These teachers empathise profoundly by appreciating and responding to individual studentsā€™ needs, but also try to do this with all students. They try to understand and form relationships with all students and try to build up an encyclopaedic knowledge of all students. They donā€™t just try to build empathic relationships with those students they find it easy to empathise with but also try to build empathic relationship with more difficult and challenging students. Profoundly empathic teachers are successful with students who other teachers find difficult. Giving one-to-one time to these challenging students is a key factor in meeting their needs and building their confidence. Profoundly empathic teachers feel great pleasure when these lower-attaining students achieve improvement.


5 Profoundly empathic teachers take responsibility not just for their studentsā€™ academic development but also for their personal well-being. These teachers want solutions for their studentsā€™ problems and are prepared to push for them. They are persistent and determined to probe to the bottom of the problem until they make a breakthrough. They want to protect children from the negative effects of the system or less understanding, uncaring teachers. They are watchful and listen to students carefully. They take close note of non-verbal signs that may indicate some hidden issue.


6 Profoundly empathic teachers are highly adaptive and aware of the different roles they adopt with different students. They demand high standards from their students and can make these high demands because of the high quality of their relationships with their students. For these profoundly empathic teachers, there is a close link between the personal and the academic. They have a holistic view of teaching and learning. They respond to each student as a whole person, not simply as a student in a particular class. They build extremely rich mental models of their students. Profoundly empathic teachers appreciate the whole student ā€“ past, present and future ā€“ must be understood and imagined to support them effectively. This rich mental model understands something of the individual studentā€™s life experiences, social, emotional and academic make-up, their loves and dreams.


7 Profoundly empathic teachers treat other people considerately. They try to be good people, to do the right thing and support others. These teachers are tolerant about race, gender, sexuality and different opinions. They listen carefully to people, encourage, give praise, do their best for their students and have high expectations of them. Profoundly empathic teachers know students observe them closely and believe that moral empathy involves matching words and deeds. Profoundly empathic teachers feel their moral and empathic behaviour is naturally mirrored by students.


Conclusions about profoundly empathic teachers

Profoundly empathic teachers are unselfish, caring, kind and pleasant. They recognise worth and value in each student, valuing difference and promoting tolerance. They want to like their students and be liked in return. They seek opportunities for interaction with students wherever they can. They give sole-attention to students and this makes students feel valued and worthy.


Illustrations by Jade Blue.


If you’re interested in the role of empathy in language teaching, check out our Empathy in Language Teaching course.

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