What makes a great teacher? Of course, we must know our subject and have a minimum of organisational skills. However, as we are working with people, “soft skills” are as important as qualifications or training. Passion, patience and persistence are all crucial. I believe that the greatest quality of all is empathy.

It can be all too easy to forget what it’s like to be a student once you’ve made the transition to the other side of the teacher’s desk. By putting ourselves in our students’ shoes, we can better understand them as individuals and make each lesson more useful, engaging and meaningful for everyone involved. Here are some ways to promote teacher-student empathy in your classroom.

1. See things from their point of view (literally).

Go around the classroom during a lesson. Can you read your board writing from the back and sides of the room? Is there a source of noise that you weren’t aware of that might affect your students’ ability to hear you? You might be able to make tweaks to the classroom environment, your speaking volume or your board writing, to ensure that all the students are getting your message.

2. Do what you are asking them to do.

Rather than relying on answer keys, complete worksheet activities yourself to check for possible points of confusion and mistakes in the questions. You will also be better prepared to explain unusual vocabulary and answer “but why is that the answer?” type questions. This also applies to preparation for assessed speaking tasks. If the task is to speak uninterrupted for a set amount of time about a given topic, try it yourself. You might be surprised at how unnatural and self-conscious you feel at first, even in your own language.

3. Get to know your students as people.

Take opportunities to find about your students’ lives so that you can better understand their needs. A student who is often late or absent probably has unavoidable things going on outside of class. Try to find out the reason, and treat them sensitively. Rather than berating them for time not spent in class, make the most of the time they do spend in class and help them to catch up by saving them handouts and missed homework.
In their shoes

4. Tailor your lessons to their interests.

A class of thirteen-year-olds might have an interest in retro pop culture, but more likely than not it’ll wash over their heads. If you want to use a song or film clip to illustrate a language point, try to make it a current or recent one. Better yet, one that they have already expressed an interest in. Think twice when using something that’s older than your students, and proceed with caution!

5. Be a student yourself.

Take lessons in a language, a sport, an instrument, anything that is new and difficult. Never forget what it’s like to be struggling with a new technique or concept, and be aware of how much help you need. When you feel the blank look of confusion appear on your own face (what’s that sound? Why is that word spelled like that? How exactly am I supposed to do this?!) – remember it and ask yourself what you really need from the teacher at that time.

How do you promote teacher-student empathy in your classroom? Do you have any other strategies to share? Let us know about it in the comments!

photo of author
Written by Sammy Tame
who lives and teaches in Cambodia. Sammy has her own blog.
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