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.
Roughly 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.