When Empathy Backfires

I almost never get angry in the classroom.Bashaw

I place a high value on empathy and understanding, so in most stress-inducing situations involving students, I make myself stop and consider perspective of the student. For example, if a student has forgotten to do his journal assignment three classes in a row, I tell myself, “Perhaps this was a difficult week for him.” Or if someone makes a belligerent comment towards me in class, I reassure myself, saying, “Perhaps her family environment has developed this trait in her but she means no harm.”

But yesterday, the classroom empathy that I take great pride in, finally (and with finality!) failed me. I experienced a boiling fury—the kind that starts as bubbling acid in your belly, spreads like poison through your shaking limbs, and results in a red-faced, hyperventilating eruption—and I almost spewed fire and sulfur (of the Sodom and Gomorrah type) all over my Biblical Interpretation students.

she-hulk08pic2Roughly two-thirds of my class had not done their reading OR their homework!!! The reading schedule was on the syllabus and I had even reminded them of the details of the assignment during our previous class meeting. And yet, thirteen of my (Religion!) students showed up completely unprepared for class. I was shocked and hurt and angry and I wondered, “What went wrong?”

It was then the great spirit of empathy I had patiently practiced, which usually resulted in a renewal of hope and optimism in my heart, showed me that last thing I thought it would…reality.

As I stared into the eyes of my slacking students, I felt what they felt. They did not do their work because they knew, from their former experience with me, that I would allow them to turn in their work late, even very late, with only a 10-point penalty. And they had decided that the lack of preparation was worth the penalty.

I realized in that moment that empathy in the classroom is not always a good thing.

I went to sleep that night with a clawing feeling in my stomach. I had always thought that mercy and empathy were the twin pillars that made me who I was as a person and a teacher. And I liked those characteristics in me. Those were pillars I constructed to emulate Jesus’ life and characteristics. But it seemed that those pillars were crumbling at the cracks and I did not understand why.

Then today God showed up to spackle and buttress my pillars.

As is often the case, God encouraged me in a mundane, unexpected moment. In preparation for another class, I watched a short video by Daniel Goleman about leadership and the three kinds of empathy. A good leader, he explains, practices all three kinds of empathy:

1) cognitive empathy—the ability to see things from another person’s perspective

2) emotional empathy—the ability to feel another person’s feelings

3) empathic concern—the ability to help another person to do better and be better

And it became clear what was wrong with my empathy.

I  had been passionately practicing the first two kinds of empathy, seeing the perspectives of my students and feeling what they felt, but I had not begun to help them to be better or do better in my class. I was not showing the third kind of empathy, empathic concern. My “merciful” policy about late work and my deep “understanding” of extenuating circumstances had worked to my students’ detriment.

So what God taught me this week was that being an truly empathetic teacher means being an abler for my students…not an enabler. May God give me the strength to do just that.

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Jennifer Bashaw

Assistant Professor of Religion at East Texas Baptist University

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4 thoughts on “When Empathy Backfires

  1. So… Zeros all around?! I guess the challenge is finding the balance between the three different kinds of empathy. Good luck in finding that balance and not ruining some poor college students life by failing him. 🙂

  2. That is a very honest and brave thing to say, and I respect and can identify with that as a college professor myself. I think we all know faculty members who are strict almost for the sake of being strict, as if saying no and bossing students around is an end in itself. Sometimes I catch myself cutting slack for no better reason than as a reaction against the hard-nosed approach. But you found the right title for the post: more than we realize empathy can backfire. It is hard to balance. I have found that if I think of the students who do the reading and do the homework (even if they are in the minority) and think of how put out they would be if I weakened and accepted late work from others with little penalty, it helps me to turn down requests to compromise. I have even said to classes, “I respect the students who come prepared, who turn in papers on time, who pay attention and work hard. I want them to know I respect them, not to think I take them for granted.” It’s frustrating for a professor, whose head can be comfortably dwelling on the content of the class, to have suddenly to address something as mundane as unprepared students or the question of accepting late work. You want so often just to deal with the content. But school and life have a way of defeating that intention all too often.

  3. I dont accept late work… and somehow my students 90% of the time either get it in on time… or take responsibility for not doing an assignment.

    I think as christians we should value mercy…. Mercy should not be our first request. Accountability to be a good steward of our time & work ethic should be our first priority.

    Hang in there.

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