Why We Must Teach Our Students Empathy

Years of dedicated research and practice have demonstrated that social and emotional intelligence now stands out as a better predictor of long-term life success than academic proficiency alone. This makes sense when you consider that the three most identifiable reasons for failure at work relate to social and emotional intelligence: difficulty in handling change, inability to work well on a team, and poor interpersonal relations.

Of course, the traditional literacies (reading, writing, and numeracy) and the technical knowledge associated with the highly specialized professions of today are foundational, non-negotiable elements of success. Whether an engineer, surgeon, accountant, psychologist, journalist, or teacher, one simply must possess the cognitive specialization associated with his or her field.

But in an environment where the knowledge undergirding practice is constantly growing, the ability to continue to learn, and the various elements of social emotional intelligence, especially empathy, are now recognized as essential components of effective service to others.

I single out empathy because it truly is unique in the constellation of attributes that comprise social emotional intelligence. Why? Because, unlike self-regulation, resilience, purpose, vitality, curiosity, and other elements of social emotional intelligence, empathy always includes other people, transcends the self, and involves interpersonal relationships.

If we want our students to reach their full potential—socially, emotionally, and academically—we must remember that social intelligence and empathy must be experienced from the inside out.

For teachers, empathy is an indispensable tool of instruction, and arguably, the key attribute (beyond knowledge of content, pedagogy, and student development) to being an effective teacher. I learned the importance of empathy in the lives of teachers firsthand in my role as director of a site of the National Writing Project where, with a team of outstanding teacher leaders, I led professional development for hundreds of teachers focused on writing. While the goal of our organization was to improve student outcomes related to writing performance, we discovered through experience that the most transformative action we could take to support student writing was to help teachers develop their own writing lives. That is, to help them take on the task of writing from the inside out, and to embrace their own identities as writers.

I know it sounds touchy-feely, but moving from assigning and grading writing to working on one’s own writing and then bringing that hard-earned knowledge to one’s students is no small task, and for some the transition was really painful. However, through a disciplined focus on helping teachers overcome their own barriers to writing well, over and over we saw real transformation in the way teachers approached the teaching of writing in their classrooms, and the downstream impact on students, classrooms, and the teachers themselves was demonstrable.

Specifically, we saw increased student writing achievement in areas including content, structure, stance, sentence fluency, diction, and writing conventions. Perhaps more importantly, we saw increased engagement with writing as teachers stepped into modeling their own writing processes including their mis-starts, mistakes, and successes.

There are many tools and pathways for the development of empathy associated with a variety of disciplines, e.g., through the language arts in reading, listening, researching and writing about people from other languages and cultures, through deepening our understanding of our interconnectedness with nature, through class and schoolwide dialogues and projects, and through technological tools, like Empatico, that connect classrooms across communities and countries.

By asking teachers to take on the writer’s identity, we were also inviting them to cultivate empathy for their students, and this is just what the teachers with whom we worked said they experienced. As one veteran high school teacher said, “I understand now on a really deep level what my students go through when they try to craft any piece of writing. I’ve taught 21 years and I’d lost touch with what it’s like to be a student. Everything I give them now I have that new dimension, that empathy, for what they have to do as writers.”

If we want our students to reach their full potential — socially, emotionally, and academically — we must remember that social intelligence and empathy must be experienced from the inside out. Empathy is much more than a check box on a curriculum, an intervention to stop bullying, or a tool to improve school and classroom climate. In a world of increasing global connectivity, technological innovation, urbanization, demographic shifts, and constant change, empathy, arguably, is the foundation of life success.

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Dr. Paul M. Rogers is a teacher leader with the Northern Virginia Writing Project, an associate professor of English at George Mason University, a strategic advisor for the world’s 6th ranked NGO, Ashoka: Innovators for the Public, and a Senior Scholar at George Mason’s Center for the Advancement of Well Being. He is also the Chair and co-founder of the International Society for the Advancement of Writing Research.