Reacting to Empathy

A few weeks ago, I returned to campus after winter break. One of my first stops was my campus mailbox which was stuffed full of interdepartmental envelopes, journals, commercial catalogs and the like. As I walked to my office, I sifted through the pile, making mental notes of the ones that needed to be addressed first, the ones that didn’t require immediate attention, and the ones that could be thrown away without action.  Buried in the stack was a card from a student named Amy. Remembering our interactions from the fall, I decided I’d open that card last. It was a wise decision.

Before I get into the card from Amy, let me take a small step back. In September 2018, I wrote a blog post titled “Lead with Empathy” where I discussed one of my biggest mistakes as an educator. I was teaching an online class and one student hadn’t logged in during the first couple days of the course. I decided an email was warranted.  In my email to the student, I used a stern tone and communicated that if she wanted to pass that class, she needed to show a little more effort to access the course content, complete assignment and meet the course deadlines. As I wrote the email, I imagined the student to be lazy and detached and looking for an easy “A.” My email was going to help motivate her. Or at least, so I thought.

In reality, the student had a medical issue and my email was completely off the mark. While I was trying to motivate her through my stern words, my communication actually portrayed me as being cold and distant. Considering her medical situation, the student needed some empathy and I missed an opportunity to offer it. The student dropped the class and, eventually, dropped out of our graduate program. While many factors could have played into the student’s decision to drop out, I felt responsible.

I spent a lot of time thinking about that student and challenged myself to “lead with empathy” when I interacted with students in the future. Drawing on a quote from Indra Nooyi, the former chairperson and CEO of Pepsico, I was going to “assume positive intent” with my students and lead with more empathetic, supportive communication. I figured I could always change my tone and message depending on the circumstances, but “leading with empathy” was going to be my default starting point moving forward.

Now to Amy. Last October, I was teaching the capstone course in our graduate program. The class is a six-credit class which involves a semester-long action research project. It is an intensive, time-consuming experience. While I teach several classes in our graduate program, this is the class where I see more students pushed to their academic limits. Midway through the semester, I worried that maybe Amy (not her real name) had reached hers. After weeks of participation and involvement in our online class, Amy just disappeared. She didn’t log in. She didn’t access course content. She hadn’t completed any assignments. Maybe she was checking out and looking for an easy route through this difficult course…

But the voice in my head whispered, “Lead with empathy!” So, I crafted a short, empathetic email that simply said:

“Amy, I see you haven’t logged in for a few days. Is everything okay?”

Within a few minutes, I received a reply from Amy.

“Can I call you?”

So, Amy and I chatted. I won’t get into all of the details here but she explained a harrowing situation that no expectant mother should have to navigate. In a very emotional call, we worked out a plan for her to complete her graduate program on time and still be able to care for herself, her developing baby and her family.

Now to the card. Again, I don’t want to get into all of the details, but inside the card, Amy included a two-page written letter updating me on everything she had experienced in the previous months. Near the end, Amy wrote:

“Someday in the future I hope to have the opportunity to pay forward the kindness you showed me as teacher. Trust that I will.”

I do, Amy.  I do.


3 thoughts on “Reacting to Empathy

  1. WOW, it is so easy as educators at any level to lead without thinking giving in the knee jerk reactions. I am sure no level is really immune from this. I am reminded of a sign I saw posted on a cupboard door back in my first year out of YCP (1992) working as a day to day substitute in a local middle school, “students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” I am certainly guilty of just lashing out sometimes and not leading with empathy. Thank you for the reminder.

  2. I recently came across an article that reminded us to ‘expect others are doing the best they can’. It has changed my mindset when interacting with others. Thanks for sharing your story Ollie!

  3. Pingback: Back in My Office | The 8 Blog

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