3 Skills to Build Empathy and Better Support Teachers

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

You’ve probably been told this Theodore Roosevelt quote in reference to students.

Now, re-read that as a coach and think about it in terms of the teachers you support: Do your teachers know you care about them?

Empathy is a critical factor in accomplishing that.

Empathy is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another,” according to Merriam-Webster.

As a coach or leader working with teachers on their professional learning and growth, which require vulnerability, it’s crucial to build empathy and connect with those you support.

The three key skills in this realm of increasing empathy and emotional intelligence are building trust, actively listening, and having compassion.

These skills are all the more important when it comes to virtual coaching and video coaching. Not always being in-person takes away the cues we often get when face-to-face. Genuine empathy for your teachers can make up for this gap.

Keep reading for the what’s and how’s of the three skills you need to build empathy.

image about how to build empathy- Working on your empathy skills You'll need: trust, active listening, and compassion

Teachers must trust you before they listen to you

In The Speed of Trust, Stephen Covey describes trust as the confidence in another’s integrity and abilities.

As a coach, you must gain the trust of your teachers. Educators are less likely to implement feedback from someone they don’t trust. Without trust, teachers are also less likely to share openly about their struggles. And without trust, teachers are less likely to be comfortable with you and open to growth.

One way to earn trust is to demonstrate your authenticity through relationship-building. Allow teachers to get to know you as a person and convey that you have their best interests at heart.

Get to know teachers for who they really are, not just their teacher duties. Here are 7 relationship-building questions you can ask to get started.

Trust is also about honesty. As a coach, have you made your expectations and modes of working clear and transparent? Be straightforward about how you’ll operate as a coach and what your teachers can expect.

And, make sure teachers know that open communication is a two-way street and that you’re open to their feedback, too.

Are you simply listening to teachers, or really, actively listening?

Active listening is another key skill for coaches and any leader to build empathy.

Indeed.com paints a picture of active listening as the ability to focus completely on a speaker, understand their message, comprehend the information and respond thoughtfully.

If you’re sort of, kind of hearing what teachers are saying but mostly going ahead to do all the talking and give feedback… it’s not going to land effectively.

Any person being supported wants to feel heard. Here are some ways to boost your active listening skills:

  • Be fully engaged. Put away that phone and don’t check the clock.
  • Restate and paraphrase. Communicate what you heard teachers express and self-monitor your understanding.
  • Listen till the end. Don’t start planning your response while someone else is speaking. It’s OK to pause before responding!
  • Stay curious. Ask more questions to clarify or probe deeper into what you’ve heard.

Compassion is an extension of empathy

Compassion is related to empathy: you understand the other person and want to help them.

Are you gaining trust but not reciprocating it? Are you actively listening but secretly judging?

If you answered ‘yes,’ you may want to step back and reassess your compassion for the teacher. Ensure you have an asset-based mindset to think about those you support.

Coaching teachers in growing and building on their strengths is very different from trying to fix everything you think they’re doing wrong.

Build empathy and compassion by putting yourself in your teachers’ shoes. Are you helping them the way you would want to be helped? Are you giving them the benefit of the doubt?

Compassion means catching yourself when you may be allowing negative assumptions about others influence how you respond to and support them.

Want to build empathy? Practice!

As with teaching skills, practice brings progress. If the three skills above don’t come to you naturally, practice them intentionally until they do.

Empathy is a part of emotional intelligence, but it is able to be fostered and improved on, just like any other skill.

Educators support students through developing empathy skills, and coaches, by extension, must build empathy skills to better support teachers.

Ready to go further and learn about compassionate communication? Find out more in our interview with Professor Tschannen-Moran.

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