Why Empathy Should be in Your Virtual Classroom Management Toolbox

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Why Empathy Should be in Your Virtual Classroom Management Toolbox

Posted in Pro Tips | April 21, 2020

They don’t care how much you know… 

…until they know how much you care. This phrase simply and accurately summarizes a great deal of what makes the educator-student-parent relationship successful. It’s all about relationships. If anything, the overnight shift to distance learning amid COVID-19 has made this more, not less, apparent. Kids don’t care about your advanced degrees, your expertise in solving quadratic equations, or your virtual classroom management skills. However, they will care about you—and each other—if you consistently demonstrate that you care about them. In a distance learning environment, it will pay off now more than ever. 

Virtual classroom management, Real people, Real feelings 

The paradigm of American education has undergone a massive shift in the blink of an eye. Brick and mortar institutions have been shuttered and stay-at-home orders are in place in most states. A return to some sense of normalcy could be months away. But despite the move to virtual classroom spaces, the interpersonal relationships are as real as ever.  

We definitely don’t have all the answers; in just the last few weeks I’ve spoken with families where students are struggling to maintain good mental health, where one or both parents have lost jobs, or situations in which the whole family has been admitted to the hospital. We are not only here to educate, but to listen relentlessly and provide some semblance of stability and hope for kids and families. It’s a virtual classroom but the people are real. Sharing our feelings during a time of crisis and encouraging students to do the same can help us work better together. Focus on acknowledging and taking care of people first and your credibility with your students will never be higher. 

Empathy builds a great virtual classroom culture. 

Institutions of higher education have a lot of experience with blended hybrid learning and fully online classroom environments, and almost without exception they first promote an empathetic sense of environment online. In one example, Eastern Illinois University promotes virtual classroom management with 11 Practice Priorities to Promote Empathy in Online Courses, that includes the following tips: 

  • Establish a relationship with students and provide tips for student success in an online environment at the beginning of the course. Personal introductions, a detailed syllabi with week by week class schedule, and providing multiple ways to easily contact the course instructor are all crucial to getting the classroom culture right. 
  • Minimize synchronous chat in favor of purposefully-facilitated asynchronous discussion boards. Encourage the deeper thinking that is possible in an asynchronous format; don’t just try to re-create the traditional classroom in an online format. 
  • Establish trust and a consistent presence throughout the course. This involves everything from timely, respectful correspondence to active, but not overwhelming, participation on the discussion boards. 
  • Check not only for learning, but deep understanding of course content, and do it regularly. 

Following all of these best practices demonstrates that you will create and sustain an empathetic, supportive, caring classroom environment and culture that is set up for student success. Just like in a brick and mortar classroom, the culture is everything. Involve the students in the process of putting their hands into the wet cement of that culture and great things will happen. 

An empathetic virtual classroom culture leads to engagement and achievement. 

John Hattie, in Visible Learning: A Synthesis of over 800 Meta-Analyses Related to Achievement, demonstrated that one of the most powerful ways to impact student achievement is the teacher-student relationship. Specifically, the variables of empathy, warmth, and encouragement all saw significant effect sizes across a range of studies. When combined with other factors such as high-quality instruction and high expectations for students, student achievement improves tremendously. 

So what does this look like in the virtual classroom? Again, get to know students and help them to know each other by having them “introduce” themselves virtually—and not just with words. Have them post a favorite family picture or talk about a hobby and engage them in the discussion. Encourage students to respond to one another. Check in with them regularly via e-mail or course message. Maintain virtual “office hours” and standing tutoring opportunities via video conference through your learning management system (LMS). When students know that you are available and actively listening, high attention and commitment to learning can follow. In other words, you will have set the stage for high student engagement in your virtual environment. 

Empathy empowers students to apply their learning. 

Empathy may be defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…” What better way to prepare students to apply what they have learned beyond the bits and bytes of the virtual classroom than to help them see the world from the point of view of others? 

Empathy and social emotional learning (SEL) empowers students by helping them develop the skills needed to identify, analyze, and actively solve problems. For example, in a virtual history classroom, the instructor might have students argue a historical event from multiple viewpoints on a discussion board on the LMS—traditional/consensus, feminist, Marxist, etc. This is stimulating to the intellect and also helps give students the tools they will need to transform raw theory into practice. If a student is able to empathize with the women workers who were trapped in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, they are better equipped to understand and make an intelligent argument about the labor issues and policies of today. 

As Peter Weiss’ characterization of Jean-Paul Marat famously said in Marat/Sade, “The important thing is to pull yourself up by your own hair, to turn yourself inside out and see the whole world with fresh eyes.” Even better to be able to see the whole world through the eyes of others. But these are skills that can and must be actively taught, through modeling by the teacher as well as learning activities that require students to empathize with the subjects of the learning, as well as each other. 

Empathy - No Matter the Setting 

“I think the teacher’s role is to engage the student and find what makes the student interested in the subject. It’s about finding passion…” That quote from a 2017 article in The Atlantic easily transposes to the virtual classroom environment, because it’s still all about empathy and building relationships with students to empower them to find their passion in life. Now more than ever, students need adults in their lives who will listen to them and prioritize showing them how much they care over attempting to adhere to curriculum requirements. 

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