Last week Doug Johnson featured the article 7 Myths About Empathy, and it recalled a powerful memory for me that made its way to a guest post on his blog. I reprint it for you here, as a courtesy to those of you patiently awaiting a new post.
While reading your 7 Myths About Empathy post, I found myself looking for a description of not just what empathy is or isn’t, but also how it actually functions in the course of instruction. Then I wondered, “Why am I looking for that?” As I read I remembered I had been provided with exactly that insight in the middle of my teaching career.
The path to understanding this many years ago was my biochemistry professor’s manner of delivering excruciatingly complex material; at least it was that for me. I was an adult learner, early forties, taking some career-necessary coursework at UC Davis. I was drowning, and apparently I wasn’t alone in feeling that way, and was seriously considering dropping the class. I remember the moment… at one point, the professor put down his dry erase pen after filling half the board with yet another enzyme reaction series. He turned toward the class, and with deep compassion in his eyes he proceeded to talk to us about knowing how difficult his was for us, how our brains needed time to unravel it on its own, and to not worry that we didn’t comprehend the complexity right at that moment. He then, as he had occasionally before, talked about the nearly miraculous nature of what it was we were trying to understand, that it was the essence of life itself, a complex process shared by virtually every living thing on the planet. He advised us to just take it in, relax, return to it often, and give our brains time to quietly sort it out.
That moment was a huge gift. Not only was he right about our brains and we how we come to understand complicated things, he used it as a teaching moment to share his love for the subject matter, and his compassion for us. He completely drew us into his discipline and communicated to us that both we and the content mattered, and the effect on us was quite amazing. I aced the damn class. My study partner (a second-career older adult) and I earned the two highest grades out of fifty or so in the class, but even our desperate-looking whippersnapper classmates did quite well.
I’ve had other experiences like this, with inspiring professors and teachers, but this particular one informed my own practice as a teacher because of his precisely directed, caring advice. I came to understand that the empathy relationship was bi-directional in a classroom, and that the deeper that relationship became the more powerful and permanent the learning. I became a much better teacher, and had much more fun. Teaching this way was personally more challenging, more emotionally risky, but I look back on my teaching days as having been very successful thanks to that understanding.
For me, this is the heart of why the teacher cannot be removed from the learning of complex subject matter. Learning a “discipline” happens when the learning setting is informed by a discipleship of following and seeking rather than 19th century discipline for punishment and order (The flogging will stop when morale improves.) Learning is often hard, at every age and level of development, and we can only be drawn to it as willing participants, not driven by compulsory anything.