Empathy Online

empathy-smYou never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Empathy, is an important ingredient when teaching, because it helps the instructor to understand what they need to do to adapt a course/workshop to the needs of the class. When you are face to face, you may read the facial expressions and hear the students talking with others or they may come to you to discuss their needs, but when your course is online, it might be a bit harder.

So, what can you do when you are teaching online and want to understand your students and what they are dealing with? You can start by introducing yourself in the class prior to starting the coursework. I have always done this with a photo and a quick bio. Recently, having started to add more video to my classes, I am going to start adding a video bio to the class and encouraging students to do the same. I made this decision when talking with a colleague recently about a class we taught together. She mentioned that she enjoyed the video sessions we created and decided to add a video introduction to another class she was teaching. She was overjoyed with the class response and planned to significantly increase her video presence.

The videos I am talking about are not presentations, per se. They are short, organic videos that may be a response to a question asked by a class member or an experience you want to share with the class or a video chat with students at a designated time that you may or may not record. You might also want to have one on one video chats with students, particularly if you feel they may have some issues that you need to address. Adding that face-to-face component often allows you to see what the student may not be sharing, particularly in a written document. If you see someone who is exhausted, frazzled or frustrated, it may give you the opportunity to help them to create a plan to overcome the obstacles they face. Often, just listening and showing support may help far more than anything else, including giving them an extension for an assignment. Just knowing someone else recognizes their pain may mean the difference between successfully finishing a course and  dropping it. It may also give the student permission to drop the course and take it at a later date without feeling like a failure, something we all can relate to.

I’ve mentioned before that I do a learning check every few weeks. The learning check is a way of asking how it is going and if they need anything from me. It is a requirement, which is another indicator. If someone doesn’t do it, it tells me that I need to reach out to them and find out why. It may be a sudden illness or a project deadline, or it may be something larger. Whatever it is, I always find that by reaching out, they student feels that you are interested in them and how they are doing, or in other words, you are showing empathy, which is always appreciated. It gives them permission to share what they might not otherwise share and help them to succeed. No one wants to feel that they are all alone.

Having said that, it is important to remember that empathy is important, but you should not try to take on the other persons issues, just because you can understand and feel their pain. It is their pain, not yours. As John Medina, states in his video, What is empathy? Why is it important?, an important part of empathy is a boundary, knowing, that it is not happening to you. Knowing that, you can be a help not a hindrance.

Until next week…..





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