We walk through our classroom doors and want to relate to our students. We want to understand their challenges, thought processes, motivations, and fears.
But how do we develop empathy for our students who may struggle with challenges we never experienced?
How can we understand their reactions, fears, and priorities if their childhood or adolescence is so incredibly different from our own or the one we're creating for our children?
Good teachers understand that practicing and growing empathy makes us great teachers.
Create a Safe Environment
One obvious way to develop empathy for our students is to create a safe environment for them to share their experiences with us and their peers. Then teachers need to listen to understand, listen to reflect, and listen even when we feel uncomfortable. This is a powerful way to build a community and model empathy.
Check out Teaching Channel's Class Culture Deep Dive for resources on building a positive classroom culture.
Reading to Learn, Understand, and Empathize
Teachers can also grow empathy outside of the classroom by reading books with characters who mirror our students' unique circumstances, challenges, and experiences. Great writers inhabit their characters -- understanding their thought processes, their motivations, and their fears. Great writing can open our hearts and minds to experiences beyond our own, and stories told well develop our empathy.
As a high school teacher, I spent much of my summer and weekends reading young adult (YA) literature. Partly because I loved it, partly because I wanted to be able to recommend relevant books to my students, and partly because I felt like a better teacher when I reminded myself of what it was like to live inside a teenager’s head for a few hours. To experience the world through a teen’s eyes and perspective helped me return to the classroom with more patience for my students.
Over the years, I recognized that certain books had helped me understand the unique challenges of some of my students.
When Jacob entered my class with an IEP that included accommodations for autism, I was so glad that I had read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time to help me, even just in part, to understand how Jacob’s perceptions were so different from my own.
When Sara was sullen, closed off, and antagonistic no matter how I tried to gain her trust, I was glad to have as a reference the freshman character in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak, recognizing that these behaviors are often strategies to cover hurt.
And books can be a valuable tool to help teachers combat bullying in and out of the classroom.
Breaking Our Biases
I’ve compiled a list of some of the books that have helped me become a more empathic teacher, mentor, and friend. Each of these books challenges ingrained stereotypes and simplistic assumptions. The authors develop complex, rich characters who interact within a world of relatable heartbreak, hope, disappointment, and dreams. Every story below has helped me fight my own biases and has deepened my ability to relate to the students in my classroom.
Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson
Halse Anderson invites readers into the interior thoughts and monologues of her central character who, in this novel, has anorexia. Read this to better understand the struggles, triumphs, and perspective of a teen coping with an eating disorder.
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell
This is a great novel to help recognize the resilience of students who are impacted by poverty and/or an abusive parent. Both of the central characters struggle with feeling like outsiders, but also are drawn to each other because of that sense of isolation. Rowell neither sugar-coats the realities nor wraps her story in a metaphorical bow. The storyline and its relatable characters generate deep empathy.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Widely acclaimed Alexie helps his readers better understand a child or teen who must navigate the cultural differences between home and school, especially within the framework of a Native American context. The main character Junior also has to deal with the pain of poverty, the marginalization of his community, and physical challenges.
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
This story is told through the perspectives of two Will Grayson characters -- one Will is heterosexual and one Will is homosexual. Through these young men’s lives, readers can more clearly understand the ways LGBTQ+ teens navigate platonic and romantic relationships, and how they better understand their identities.
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
In this semi-autobiographical novel, Kwok illustrates the unique challenges and relatable dreams of immigrant students who must quickly learn to navigate the two different worlds of home and school. This book, more than any I’ve read, helped me to understand the perspective of a student in my class identified as an English Language Learner, because Kwok brilliantly details the language acquisition journey of her character.
This is neither a YA novel or fiction, but this book has helped me understand both myself as an extrovert, and my students who are introverted. Reading this changed the way I structured collaboration, timelines, and work time in my classroom.
These books are directed to younger readers than others on this list; however, they are just as powerful in their ability to capture the inspiration of an innocent child’s perspective. These characters help readers understand a bit more about the challenges of living with a physical disability (Wonder) and how children can bully others (The Julian Chapter). Because they are connected stories, they are brilliant for helping readers see the same situation from multiple perspectives.
The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas
Through the perspective of a high school teen, this novel can help unpack the complexities of institutional racism through the first person narration of a teen who navigates gang violence and police violence in her community. One police officer is her uncle who helped raise her. Another police officer shoots her friend in a traffic stop and doesn't suffer any consequences for that action. She navigates the trauma of losing a friend to police violence, but also the complexities of a mixed race relationship and the code-switching necessary between the vastly different worlds of her home and school communities.
There are so many more stories that can develop our capacity for empathy and help us understand the unique challenges and strengths that our students bring into our classrooms. I hope this is just the start of this list. Please add your recommendations in the comments below.
Brianna Crowley is a National Board Certified Teacher from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She has over nine years of experience in a high school English classroom, serving as an instructional tech coach for four of those teaching years. Brianna has been a strong advocate for teacher leadership through her role as a 2013 ASCD Emerging Leader, 2015 Teacherpreneur, and published author in Best Lesson Series: 15 Master Teachers Share What Works. Brianna is currently the Education and Training Manager for a Pennsylvania nonprofit serving school boards. You can connect with her on Twitter: @AkaMsCrowley or @BC_EDU_Training.