The lived experience of teacher empathy practice in primary classrooms

Year: 2018

Author: Swan, Paul

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Empathic interactions are fundamental to good teaching where the teacher accounts for thirty percent of student achievement variance (Hattie, 2003). Professional standards mandate teacher empathy in Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, and some Australian states. How do Australian primary teachers, identified by principals as effective empathisers, understand and enact empathy to provide students with social and emotional support?
This study used a multidimensional operational definition to guide observations of teacher interactions with students to examine manifestations of teacher empathy practice. The study explicated processes whereby teachers know students’ internal states and respond with sensitive care. Teacher empathy—“an ability to access the life of the mind of others in their bodily and behavioural expressions” (Zahavi & Overgaard, 2012, p.10)—consisted of affective empathy (sharing or mirroring another’s emotional state) and cognitive empathy (perceiving and decoding other’s emotional states to accurately infer what they are thinking/feeling).
Six teachers (grades 2–6; 2–17 years’ experience) and their 65 students from two schools in Melbourne participated. Teachers’ filmed their practice at two timepoints (vignettes) and nominated positive “empathy interaction moments” for analysis. They kept a diary to record thoughts, feelings, and actions, and perspectives were explored at interview. Observers assessed “live” lessons and vignettes for emotional support using the CLASS protocol (Pianta, Hamre, & Mintz, 2012). An interpretative phenomenological approach (Smith, Flowers, & Larkin, 2009) was used to analyse transcripts. Diaries and vignettes were coded for cognitive and affective empathy elements.
The qualitative case study results show commonalities in the lived experience of empathic engagement. Teachers perceived empathy as a combination of understanding, experience, and imagination that helped them to meet student needs. Phenomenological themes included knowing students, being highly motivated to connect, taking a personal interest, displaying high levels of emotional and social support, and adjusting their teaching to meet the needs of students. Empathic interactions were found to enhance the quality of teaching by creating positive learning environments, unconditional positive regard (caring), and support (Good & Brophy, 2000; Noddings, 1988; Sergiovanni, 1994). The more accurately teachers teased out students’ mental states, the more able they were to respond sensitively to behaviour with an emotion based on care. Enacting appropriate responses requires awareness of students’ mental states in relationships, responding with strategies that enhance behaviour, feelings, thoughts and agency in engagement, resulting in teachers who are motivated to actively monitor and respond to behavioural signals – of relevance to all practitioners.