Is Empathy Enough?


Aug 10, 2021

There’s no doubt about it; COVID-19 has made the public more empathetic towards key workers.

From clapping the NHS to parents finally understanding what life is like for teachers, the pandemic has produced a groundswell of support for the professions that truly keep this country running.

But with teachers back in the classroom and life (very slowly!) returning to normal, it still isn’t clear how all of that support and awareness will translate into action.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I think the pandemic could be an enormous engine for positive change in the education sector – from how we treat teachers to the ways technology is integrated into the classroom.

But for any of that change to materialise, I think we need to have an honest conversation about empathy – and its limits.

As all teachers know, empathy is an essential part of creating change

We simply can’t create a connection with our students or make them feel recognised and valued, if we don’t take the time and effort to really understand how they feel, where they come from and what they want from life.

And the same is true of teachers.

Governments, governors and management will struggle to truly improve the experience of education professionals without a real understanding of our needs, struggles and pains.

In this sense, empathy is immensely positive and the support we’ve seen during the pandemic should be a source of optimism.

But there is also a danger here that we need to be wary of.

Because rather too often, empathy becomes not the catalyst for change - but a substitute for it.

Empathy is the first step, not the whole hog

In his book Against Empathy, the Yale psychologist Paul Bloom argues that ‘affective empathy’ - the ability to literally ‘feel’ what another person feels - can actually lead to paralysis and complacency.

The ‘feeling’ becomes the goal, and we often forget about the ‘doing’ altogether.

So, to avoid this, Mr. Bloom argues we need ‘cognitive empathy’.

See, cognitive empathy is basically a more rational approach to empathy, where we listen and absorb information about a person’s predicament.

And with that information, we understand not just how they might feel - but how we could change it.

Which is exactly what I see as the next step in the journey towards improving the education sector.

We need to help everybody understand teachers’ experience

When I talk to teachers today, almost all of them seem to feel genuinely touched by the increased recognition they’ve seen during the pandemic.

And I want to see that continue, for sure.

But I also want it to turn into real improvements in their working lives.

So here is what I think we need to do:

Start having conversations not just about the experience of teaching, but the possibilities of changing that experience.

Because while empathising with the challenges teachers have faced is good, that empathy is always going to be limited by experience.

So as a community, educators need to be more vocal about how specifically the wider society can help support us, our pupils and their parents.

The feeling really is there now - all we need is the action.


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