Role of Empathy in Teaching

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Swami Vivekananda said that teaching is something more than just speaking; it is communicating. This lecture explores this idea in detail.



Role of Empathy in Teaching
MCKV Lecture

Role of Empathy in Teaching
Addressed to the Teachers
MCKV School, Liluah on 31st Mar ‘16
Good morning. I am happy to be here today to talk to all of you about a very important
topic – Empathy & its role in teaching. As was introduced by your Principal just now, I come
from Ramakrishna Mission Shilpamandira, Belur Math. I have been here a couple of times
before. Once, about two years ago, I had addressed a similar session for teachers. Many of you
were there then, when I spoke of ‘Stress Management for Teachers’. Some of you may be new. I
am here again today, and we shall go into our topic.
Many people approach me at Belur Math, to speak to them. Most of them are devotees,
who implore me (and other monks there) to bless their houses or Sanghas with the dust of my
feet. I tell them, that I go around in an AC car and hence my feet don’t have any dust! However,
I look forward to meeting students and teachers, whenever I get the opportunity. That is the
reason I am here today. I have this special relaxation for centers of education for a reason. You
see, there was once a farmer who regularly got the award for the best crop every year. Journalists
approached him as to how he managed to get the best crop every year. He replied that he
purchased the best hybrid seeds and distributed them among his neighboring farmers. That
seemed a little odd. How could that give him a better crop? His crop depended on crosspollination. And that again depended on the quality of the seeds in his neighboring fields. We do
not and cannot grow alone, to the exclusion of others, in excellence.
I wish to plan today’s session in this way: I will speak, using a PowerPoint Presentation,
on Empathy & its role in teaching, for about 40-45 minutes. Then, I will wish to have a
discussion on the ideas I have introduced here for the remaining 40-45 minutes. I am not going to
go into great details here. I will just introduce some ideas, that’s all. Just before coming to this
hall, I was having tea with the Principal. He was telling me that you have a programme wherein
some selected students are allowed to have a one-to-one assistance from teachers. This is a
praise-worthy effort, in line with what we are going to deal with here today.
Let me begin by telling you the formal definition of Empathy. The standard definition is:
It is a skill that can make young people more productive in work environments that require
cooperation and in a global economy that becomes more complex with each passing day. It is
what turns them into future leaders.
This long-winded definition seems to be given by a person who has no empathy towards
us! I, for one, could not understand what exactly is meant by these words. Anyway, empathy is
not that complicated an idea. It is a faculty all of us are capable of. It is the capacity to put
oneself in another person’s shoes and understand the other person’s exact state of mind, the other
person’s feelings.
The same official definition says, “Empathy has tremendous implications for
achievement, both socially and intellectually. Empathy isn’t just something for youth, either. It’s
a skill that can transform a community and build social capital.” I mention this just to give you
an idea of the monumental importance of this concept in our job as teachers.
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Role of Empathy in Teaching
MCKV Lecture

One of my favorite dicta regarding teaching is an old
Jesuit saying: “In order to teach Mathematics to John,
you must know Mathematics….and….you must know
John.” It is not enough if I know Mathematics very
well. I must also know the student whom I am going to
teach Mathematics. Let us not confuse this idea with
any sort of moral training of the student. This has
nothing to do with making my student a good, moral
person, by allowing my personal life to influence him,
or anything of that sort. The Jesuit monks advised us to
know our students. What does this ‘knowing John’ mean?
Listen to a story. This was quoted often by Steven R Covey, the famous management
thinker and author of ‘7 habits of highly effective people’.
A person entered a bus with three kids, obviously
his own. While he sat down, the kids ran up and
down the aisle of the bus, cutting antics, and
generally disturbing the other seated passengers.
One of the passengers could tolerate it no longer
and went up to the irresponsible father and told
him that he ought to control his kids’ behavior and
it was wrong of him to allow them to run around
like this, disturbing others in the bus. As soon as he
heard this, the distraught father came back to reality, as it were, from a dream and called the kids
to sit near him. Then he explained to the fellow passenger, “You see, Sir, the mother of these
kids, my wife, just passed away in the hospital. I don’t know how to break the news to these little
fellows….” As soon as he said this, you can imagine how, instantly, the feelings of the other
passengers towards this recently- widowed-father changed from anger. The effect that this brief
communication had on the people on that bus is empathy.

Let me tell you another story. There was a man who
got himself a pet dog. He got a very good breed, a
high pedigree Labrador. He read up on the good petgrooming books. All of them said that dogs love codliver oil. So he started feeding his pet dog cod-liver
oil. He doled it out on a spoon and tried to feed the
dog. He tried to chug the oil directly into the dog’s
mouth from the bottle. No matter how he tried, the
dog simply refused to drink it. Days passed in vain
effort. He realized that something was essentially
wrong with his dog and wanted to consult a veterinary doctor about it. One day, while he was
struggling to hold the dog in between his knees and trying to feed it from the bottle, the dog,
which had grown up now, shook violently from his grasp and the bottle fell from his hand and
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Role of Empathy in Teaching
MCKV Lecture

broke. He went to get a piece of rag to clean the oil. When he returned, he found that the dog had
licked every drop of oil from the ground! He realized that his dog did indeed love cod-liver oil. It
didn’t like the method of hid feeding!
So, effective communication in order to understand the exact movement within the
child’s mind; and appropriate mode of delivering the content to the students – these are two
aspects of Empathy that are highly relevant to us teachers.
Swami Vivekananda has some very specific advice to us teachers in
this regard. He says: “The only true teacher is he who can convert
himself, as it were, into a thousand persons at a moment’s notice.
The only true teacher is he who can immediately come down to the
level of the student, and transfer his soul to the student’s soul and
see through the student’s eyes and hear through his ears and
understand through his mind. Such a teacher can really teach and
none else… He alone teaches who has something to give, for
teaching is not talking. Teaching is communicating.” He further
says, “The true teacher is one who can throw his whole force into the growth trajectory of the
taught. Without real sympathy, we can never teach well.”
How are we to be empathetic when we teach daily? We may follow some thumb rules
such as:
1. Let us try to understand truly the exact state of mind of the child. How do we do this?
This is by clear communication. Children speak to us through their behavior more
than through their words. A student who is defiant is actually not trying to insult you.
He is trying to say something, perhaps his helplessness in dealing with something or
someone. Children feel helpless very often.
2. We must however be cautious regarding over-empathy. As teachers, we need to
empathize with our students, but then, we also need to safeguard our objectivity.
Doctors and lawyers are given that training, never to get emotionally attached to their
patients and clients. Teachers are not given that training. We need to pick it up while
working. We need to ‘come down to the level of the student’. But we cannot stay
there with the students! We need to again bring them up to where we generally stand.
The goal is not to merely understand the child. The goal is to really understand the
child and then lift him up to our level.
3. We need to prepare our mind be in order to be truly empathic in classroom. As
trained teachers, we all prepare for our lessons – the content, the structure, the
outcome – but, that alone doesn’t suffice. Swamiji’s words which I quoted just now
clearly imply that we need to sufficiently prepare ourselves way beyond just the
syllabus and delivery if effective teaching-learning has to occur.
a. One of the most important things that we need to keep in mind is that we
should not bring our personal issues into the classroom. What do I mean?
Suppose we have some unresolved conflict going on at home. I have to take
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Role of Empathy in Teaching
MCKV Lecture

care to see that this doesn’t affect my mind, and hence my working, in the
classroom today. This demands a great amount of self-discipline on our part.
Not just home troubles, we may have many biases, many prejudices,
regarding any number of issues. Do we consciously check ourselves when we
enter the classroom? Let me give you an example, if you all permit me, and
don’t feel bad. I have found out that most people in our country dream of a
Government Job. Working for the State or Central Government alone is a
proper job. Rest of the things are all drudgery, or slavery, or demeaning! So,
what I find is, many people working in private concerns, keep on preparing
for various Government Exams. Are we not cheating these students who are in
my charge now? Am I giving my full attention or am I goofing off by doing
the bare minimum?
b. We need to introspect about every incident of anger outburst we have in the
classroom. The typical classroom environment is a very complex
psychological situation. It is a situation of complete power in the hands of the
teacher and utter subjugation of the students. Stanford psychologist Phillip
Zimbardo studied this situation in great detail and brought out the inherent
flaws in this system. Getting angry in a classroom is necessary, at times. But,
it is justified only when our anger brings about the necessary behavior
correction in the student. Not every anger outburst is justified nor is it
necessary. When I got angry on my students today, was it my defense
mechanism releasing pent up emotions against the Principal?
c. Smile. A teacher who cannot smile shouldn’t teach. Confucius famously said
that one who can’t smile should open a shop. I hold that one who cannot smile
often shouldn’t teach. Children, no matter how grown up they are, feel
diffident with us. A smile on our face will open up channels for the kids to
approach us.
d. The most important thing, however, about being a teacher is that we need to
enjoy our job. Joy is infectious, just as sorrow. Kids evaluate us, much better
than how we evaluate them. They may not be able to verbalize the exact
mentation on which they evaluate us, but, believe me; they do. Children see
though us and discern if we truly like our job or do we just work superficially.
They clearly recognize the extra effort we take in making some idea easier for
them to understand, and realize if we did that extra job, or did we just parrot
what is already mentioned in printed books. We will not be able to put in that
extra effort unless we really like what we do. And that matters immensely.

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Role of Empathy in Teaching
MCKV Lecture

Having learned this much about Empathy and its role in
teaching, we may touch upon one last topic before I wind up –
the expected outcome from practicing empathy in classrooms.
While it can be justifiably expected that empathy in teaching
will greatly improve the effectiveness of the entire teachinglearning process, and create deeper bonds between the teacher
and the taught, there is one important outcome that I am more
interested in highlighting today.
Swami Vivekananda spoke passionately about ‘man-making education’. While this is a
very deep topic, with many aspects to it, one important idea associated with such an education is
the quote I have projected above: “Every child needs at least one adult who is irrationally crazy
about him or her.” A child may have gotten all the right academic inputs through the schoolcollege education system. The child may have grown up in a decent home with decent, educated
parents. Yet, one more vital input is required for the child to manifest his or her full potential.
And that is – one adult in the child’s life, who is genuinely passionate about the child’s
blossoming, about the child’s capabilities; an adult who can fill in dreams into the child’s brain;
an adult who can repeatedly speak to the child about its infinite capabilities.
In McGill University, Montreal, Canada, a recent study was done on rats to study the role
of empathy in the relation between parents & pups. This study gave birth to a new term – ‘Secure
Attachment Relationship’. The group of psychologists studied how parent-rats behaved when
they realized that their pups were under stressed conditions. The stress was induced by various
means – random movement of predators near the cages, loud noises, electric shocks, etc. Some
parents would vigorously lick their pups, while some would leave the pups to handle the
situations on their own. Later on, when they studied the grown up pups, they were able to clearly
distinguish that the well-licked rat pups grew up to be more confident, better in negotiating
mazes, and generally fearless, compared to the ignored pups! This result was used by another
psychologist, Paul Tough, and extrapolated it to humans. He concluded something that we have
sort of known for a long time now. But this study and its finding bolsters our belief that human
kids who have a strong adult to fall back upon under stress, grow up to be better adults. In his
own words, “Researchers say that about two-thirds of American kids have a secure attachment,
one-third don’t. And the two-thirds with a secure attachment are more socially competent and
confident through their lives. They’re better at dealing with other people and making friends.
They’re better able to deal with setbacks. They’re more likely to be engaged in the classroom.”
So, let me summarize our session now. I spoke to you about Empathy, what it means.
Then I spoke about Swami Vivekananda’s conception of a true teacher, full of this Empathy.
Then we saw some ground rules we need to follow to be more empathetic in the classroom.
Finally we saw the expected outcome of being empathetic in our roles as teachers.
What I have done here today is just introduce some very basic ideas about Empathy.
There are many more aspects and ramifications, which we can explore on some other occasion.

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Role of Empathy in Teaching
MCKV Lecture

I will leave you with an interesting idea: how parents of
our students themselves need quite a good amount of training. In
some cases, more than their children! Take a look at these two


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