Are you driving disconnection with learners without realizing it?


I recently watched this awesome video by Dr. Brene Brown on the difference between empathy and sympathy.



I really enjoyed her approach to a very sensitive and delicate topic and started to think how this could be applied to my teaching and how I interact with my learners. I started to reflect on how I approach students with issues or difficulties, and more specifically, was I being empathetic or sympathetic in my responses? Of course, I am aware that I am a teacher and not a trained counselor. However like most teachers, I am often in a position where I do offer advice or listen when students are having problems.


Indeed, as teachers, we perform a multitude of roles. However, like many of you, I’m incredibly busy and this means I have a limited amount of time to reflect on exactly what I did in a day or what precisely I said to students who have approached me. Now of course, depending on your context, the role that a teacher plays can vary quite dramatically. However, I’m sure you’d all agree that we do a whole lot more than just turn up to class and convey information. I was going to try and define our potential roles as teachers, but rather than do that I thought I would leave that to someone who did it far more eloquently than I ever could, Lily Eskelsen Garcia. If you haven’t already, then please watch her speech on what teachers do and then continue reading! It’s a great video!



Again, depending on your context, your learners might have a wide variety of needs. I have taught a full spectrum of learners in my career from young learners right the way through to retirees. More than that, I have taught students on good days and bad days, and I understand that depending on the learner and their context at any certain time they are going to be different. In addition, I believe that sociocultural and historical contexts play a huge role in the learners we get in our classrooms. I am not going to try to discuss students in general, but I will attempt to present what I think are some of the issues that my learners might have before moving on to how I can possibly improve my way of helping them. More specifically, how I can be more empathetic than sympathetic.


As regular readers of my blog might know, I work at the tertiary level in Japan. I teach at a medium sized university and the majority of my students are female. As part of my doctorate on language learning motivation, I interviewed a sample of the population at this university and gained some insight into what was going on in their lives and what motivates them to learn English. Of course, I don’t have the space to discuss everything I learned, but two issues were prevalent across all age groups and throughout the study. The first was a form of institutional pressure the learners felt. The second were the obligations that the learners believed they had. Every participant in my study reported being under pressure either from teachers or the institute at some point throughout an academic year. In addition, they all reported several obligations and distractions they had outside of the class. Both of which seemed to impact on their motivation and ability to study what they wanted to study.


I teach several communication classes and students will on a regular basis discuss with me or their classmates the two issues mentioned above. One example of the pressure the learners in my context are under is connected to the TOEIC test. In this context, the TOEIC is used to determine whether learners can take certain classes, receive funding, and even to graduate, so naturally, they feel a great deal of pressure when trying to reach a certain score. An example of an obligation that a learner is under would be relating to their club or circle activity. The majority of learners join one of these and there can be a great deal of work involved in certain clubs and circles. There is a strong vertical hierarchy in Japan with seniors and juniors (sempai and kohai). This often leads to extra pressure and work. The sempai are often expected to be the mentor and the kohai are often expected to diligently follow instructions. In a circle like the dance circle, the work they need to do to get ready for a performance combined with this vertical hierarchy means the learners are often left exhausted.


I’m sure in other contexts the learners have other issues, but it was clear to me that my learners were certainly under institutional pressures and have obligations that consume a great deal of their time. Returning to the topic of empathy and sympathy, I started to contemplate whether I was an empathetic teacher or whether I was more of a sympathetic teacher when either a student discussed something going on in their life with me or approached me with a specific issue. In the video above, Dr. Brown informs us that Theresa Wiseman defined four qualities of empathy. The first being perspective taking, second staying out of judgement, and the final two recognizing emotion in people and communicating that emotion. In other words, empathy is feeling with people. Taking this into consideration, I realized that when listening to a discussion of an issue or problem in class, I am definitely more of a sympathetic teacher. Rather than trying to place myself in their shoes, I would simply offer a word or two of encouragement. Reflecting back, I now realize that for the majority of time I certainly did not try to empathize. On the other hand, perhaps when approached with a specific issue, I would be more empathetic, but these occasions would be much less frequent. This worried me. I realized that by being less empathetic I was missing opportunities to fuel connection and quite possibly driving disconnection.


I certainly believe that in our profession we should be at least trying to connect with our learners. At the start of the semester, I have always tried to employ basic motivational conditions in the classroom and then build on them as the semester progresses. However, I had little idea that my sympathetic approach could be potentially damaging connections with learners. I have therefore decided to try to adopt a more empathetic approach when talking with my learners. I am sure this will be challenging because there is little common ground (in terms of our lifestyles) that I can draw on my emotions to empathize with what they are feeling. In other words, I am not sure I am capable of feeling with my learners. However, I am under a degree of pressure with my Doctorate degree thesis, my job, and running Dreamreader. These obligations certainly keep me busy, so it is my hope that I can draw on these experiences to connect more with learners and therefore become a more empathetic teacher.