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Empathy: one key to successful teaching

When I reflect on what I have seen and experienced as a language teacher over the years, one of the characteristics of the successful teacher, it seems to me, is the capacity to show empathy. Whatever their personality or chosen methodology, some teachers have a very keen sense of where to pitch the lesson, how to sense the mood of the class, when to divert from the original lesson plan, how to sense when boredom could be setting in - in general, how to relate to the class. I would go as far as to say that this ability trumps (within limits) the methodology employed in the lesson. I would pick out two types of empathy referred to by psychologists and educationalists:

Cognitive empathy 

This is the capacity to understand another's perspective or mental state. In teaching we can say that it refers to the teacher’s ability to marry every level of their teaching (e.g. planning lessons, classroom delivery, feedback provision, target-setting, homework) to their students’ thinking processes. We could break it down as follows:

An awareness of the cognitive challenges posed by language learning in general and by the specific language items you’re teaching. For example, knowing that the learning of adjective agreement is tough for English-speaking students because the concept doesn’t exist in English; or anticipating that direct and indirect object pronouns in French will be especially hard because of the word order problems they create; or being aware of the challenges posed by the German case system.

An understanding of how students respond to such challenges. This involves an awareness of how cognition in a language learning context is affected by individual variables, e.g. age group, gender, personality type, culture, etc. For example, younger students usually find it harder than older ones to apply grammatical rules taught explicitly. Some topics appeal to some groups more than others, depending on the make-up and background of the class.

Affective empathy 

Also called emotional intelligence, this is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another's affective state. For the teacher this can work at a whole class level (feeling the general mood) or at an individual level (sensing at any moment how a student might be reacting emotionally to the task they’re doing. Effective teachers seem either to do these things instinctively (the so-called “natural teacher”) or have learned to exercise them through reading, training or experience. Teachers who begin their careers very successfully enhance their skills with time and deliberate practice, while others who initially find the classroom hard can turn into excellent practitioners.

Learning aspects of cognitive empathy may be easier for most teachers than mastering affective empathy, since you can, by contrasting English and the TL anticipate what will be easier and harder. For example, adjectival agreement, gender and tense usage are bound to be issues for English-speaking learners of European languages. A sound knowledge of second language teaching methodology is also easy to acquire, namely understanding the principles of natural language acquisition and second language acquisition theories.

Showing social and emotional intelligence requires observing and listening to students carefully, picking up any visual or spoken clues to their mood and detecting any relationship patterns between students. You can help the process along by effective assessment for learning (formative assessment) techniques, e.g. asking students how they feel about what they’ve learned, what their attitudes are to language learning, specific activity types and non-English-speaking cultures.

Teachers with well-developed cognitive and affective empathy are able to avoid confrontation, be positive, make students feel cared for and self-assured, while not becoming over-anxious when things don’t go as planned. Anxiety spreads anxiety. Some teachers are, of course, more compassionate than others, but in general the more a teacher is able to look out to others rather than look in to themselves, the better.

 It comes down to something Bill Rogers (a highly regarded writer about behaviour management) has written about: when students talk about their teachers they may mention subject-related matters, but they’re more likely to talk about the kind of teacher they have, whether they teach well and interestingly, and whether they’re fair, considerate, patient and have a sense of humour. Above all they talk about whether their teachers care.

The above is an extract from Chapter One of Becoming and Outstanding Languages Teacher.

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