The Power of Empathy in the Classroom

A further element that establishes a climate for self-initiated, experiential learning is empathetic understanding. When the teacher has the ability to understand the student’s reactions from the inside, has a sensitive awareness of the way the process of education and learning seems to the student, then again the likelihood of significant learning is increased.

This kind of understanding is different from the usual evaluative understanding, which follows the pattern of “I understand what is wrong with you.” When there is a sensitive empathy, however, the reaction in the learner follows something of this pattern,” At last someone understands how it feels and seems to me without wanting to analyze me or judge me. Now I can blossom and grow and learn.”

This attitude of standing in the other’s shoes, of viewing the world through the student’s eyes, is almost unheard of in the classroom. One could listen to thousands of ordinary classroom interactions without coming across one instance of clearly communicated, sensitively accurate, empathic understanding. But it has a tremendously releasing effect when […] students feel … they are simply understood, not evaluated, not judged, simply understood from their own point of view, not the teacher’s.

If any teacher set herself the task of endeavoring to make one non-evaluative, accepting, empathic response per day to a student’s demonstrated or verbalized feeling, I believe she should discover the potency of this currently almost nonexistent kind of understanding.

-Carl Rogers, Freedom to Learn, pp. 126-127.