Skip to main content

Empathy in Education and the Role of Motivation in Student Learning

When you think of empathetic teachers, what comes to mind? What I often hear from other educators is that empathetic teachers are teachers who are understanding, flexible, kind, approachable, and caring.  

Empathy is understanding student's personal and social situations, feeling care and concern for both positive and negative emotions, and demonstrating care and understanding through actions.  

Empathy IS accurately identifying the feelings and thoughts of another person. 

Empathy is NOT feeling or thinking as they do.  

Empathy IS communicating an understanding of the internal experience of another person in a given situation. 

Empathy is NOT expressing what you would do or feel in the same situation. 

Now that we know what empathy is, why is it important, particularly in education? Empathy is correlated to students’ perceptions of their learning and their performance on objective tests. Empathy is a way to model effective communication. Empathy is the strongest predictor of positive student outcomes (i.e. academic performance and behavior). Empathy increases the likelihood of learning. Finally, it can avoid power struggles with frustrated students.  

I like to think I am empathetic with my students, but the reality is for many educators, like myself, empathy scares us. Why is that? First, we might feel that by showing empathy we are lowering our standards. Secondly, we might feel that by showing empathy, we are accepting ‘unacceptable’ behavior. Finally, we might feel that we are not fully preparing our students for the future. Lowering standards, lack of relational understanding, and pity-based responses are NOT characteristics of empathy. They are, in fact, characteristics of sympathy. Empathetic teachers realize that empathy does not equal weakness. Empathetic teachers can separate their own experiences from others. They are careful in how they articulate students’ experiences. They create boundaries, and they prioritize student learning (Miller, 2022).  

There are several things that educators can do to improve their own empathy.  

  • Understand social contexts for students’ ‘undesirable behaviors’  

  • Learn about students’ personal contexts 

  • Use policies to support the understanding of students’ personal contexts 

When we think of ‘undesirable student behaviors’ we tend to think of times when students miss deadlines, are chronically late, don’t follow assignment instructions, or seem unengaged. These ‘undesirable student behaviors’ are often the result of personal student contexts and not a reflection of the student themselves. These personal student contexts could be responsibilities outside the classroom, a fear of failure, or imposter syndrome. Most often these personal contexts are NOT lack of motivation, laziness, or rudeness.  

What follows are five action items to help educators foster and demonstrate empathy in their classrooms.  

Re-Submit Opportunities 

Resubmissions allow students to refine their work as learning is a process. 

Welcome Messages 

Posting a warm welcome message sharing about yourself allows your students to see you as ‘human’, not just their teacher.  

Get to Know Students (personally) 

Make connections with your students, consider where they live, what sports teams they like, hobbies, children, etc. 

Demonstrate Flexibility 

Life happens to all of us, when possible, demonstrate flexibility.  

Maintain High Standards with Clear Instructions 

Consider how to maintain high standards expressed through clear, explicit instructions and expectations (what students want) while allowing for flexibly when necessary.  

“Removing Obstacles in these Ways does not Lower Standards, but it does Increase the Chance Students will Successfully Complete their Courses” (Myers, 2019) and isn’t this what we want?  


Myers, S. Rowell, K. Wells M. & Smith, B.C. (2019). Teacher Empathy: A Model of Empathy for Teaching for Student Success. College Teaching, 67 (3).

Miller, K. (2022, September). Empathy in Higher Education: Not Just for Counselors Anymore. 

About the Author

Michele Poulos has been in education for the past twenty years, working in elementary, secondary and post-secondary settings. She has a Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education, a Master's Degree in Psychology and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree in Psychology. She has learned and taught in traditional and online environments. She currently serves as Dean for the College of Arts and Sciences with ECPI University. She was recently initiated into Marquis’s Who’s Who in America for 2022. She resides in Naples, Florida with her husband, eight-year-old son, Trenton, and six-year-old daughter, Eliana. One fun fact about her is that she was a contestant on the Price is Right. While she never made it out of “contestant’s row,” she did win a year’s supply of Ivory soap and a vacuum.

Profile Photo of Michele Poulos