The Urban Review

, Volume 46, Issue 3, pp 395–419

Towards a Pedagogy for the Application of Empathy in Culturally Diverse Classrooms


    • Division of Applied Psychology and Human Development, Graduate School of EducationUniversity of Pennsylvania

DOI: 10.1007/s11256-013-0262-5

Cite this article as:
Warren, C.A. Urban Rev (2014) 46: 395. doi:10.1007/s11256-013-0262-5


Empathy is theorized to improve the teaching effectiveness of teachers in urban and multicultural classroom settings. However, the field has few models useful for training and preparing teachers to cultivate empathy as a professional disposition. This study examines the academic, behavioral, and social/relational interactions of four White female high school teachers with their Black male students. Findings suggest that empathy, as a professional disposition applied by teachers to negotiate interactions with students, requires two phases of implementation. Phase 1 is the acquisition of new knowledge. Phase 2 is the strategic negotiation of that knowledge and interpretation of student feedback to make the necessary pedagogic adjustments in subsequent student–teacher interactions. Implications for teacher education and professional development are discussed.


EmpathyMulticultural educationStudent teacher interactionCulturally responsive pedagogy


Milner (2005, 2008a, 2010a) insists preservice teachers need experiences during their teacher preparation program that specifically prepare them to meet the shifting social, cultural, and intellectual demands of educating an increasingly diverse student population. Teaching across difference—namely race, class, and gender—is a matter of importance to teacher educators as they prepare preservice teachers to value diversity in a multicultural society (Banks 2007; Banks and Banks 2010). Urban and public schools in the U.S. are increasingly more diverse and multicultural (Fry 2007; Snyder 2009; Toldson 2013), while teachers remain primarily White, female, and middle to upper class (Hodgkinson 2002; U.S. Bureau of Labor 2011a, b). Research-based interventions for improving how teachers communicate and respond to the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse students are more necessary now than ever before. Empathy is viewed as one such intervention useful for improving student outcomes in multicultural classroom contexts (Dolby 2012).

Empathy has been long-regarded as an important aspect of teachers’ professional preparation to teach in diverse school settings (Aspy 1972, 1975a, b; Black and Phillips 1982; Redman 1977; Tettegah and Anderson 2007) and should be modeled by individuals who supervise teacher candidates (Pajak 2001). More recently, researchers agree that empathy is a professional disposition of effective teachers in urban settings (Gordon 1999) and that its application likely improves their teaching effectiveness with students of color (Carter 2009; Dolby 2012; Howard 2006, 2010), and Black males more specifically (Dance 2002). Empathy’s relevance to the teaching profession has remained central to the human interactions between teachers and students throughout the years. On the contrary, few instructional frameworks grounded in empirical investigation exist to provide a pragmatic approach to applying empathy to social relationships in education. Frameworks of this sort must account for the multiple dimensions of empathy’s expression relevant to the professional work demands of teachers in today’s urban, and by extension, multicultural classrooms.

This article develops a conceptual framework for the application of empathy as a professional teaching disposition, or fundamental beliefs, judgment making, and intellectual orientations guiding teachers’ actions and professional decision-making (Johnson and Reiman 2007). The application of empathy is specifically explored as a professional disposition of culturally responsive teaching. Dispositions transcend content knowledge, philosophies, or attitudes about teaching. As the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE) (2008) explains, dispositions are concomitant with how teacher beliefs influence their behavior to act in ways that ultimately produce positive student outcomes. Professional educators agree empathy is a necessary disposition as evidenced by the development of assessment tools based on NCATE standards (see Almerica et al. 2011). Still, the construct of empathy has too little vocational meaning and utility for improving the outcomes of cross-racial or cross-cultural student teacher interactions.

Literature Review

The culturally responsive teaching literature provides the conceptual foundation for strategies to improve the student outcomes of racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse youth. The following section expounds on the relevance of empathy in the teaching profession as a disposition of teachers aiming to enact a culturally responsive teaching practice. It was not a goal of this study to define empathy. Rather, this research utilizes an established theoretical construct of empathy from the field of social psychology. This construct is the analytic perspective used to document evidence of empathy in the student–teacher interactions of four White female teachers with their Black male students. The definition of empathy and its dimensions for application are described below.

Defining Empathy: A Conceptual Framework

Mark H. Davis (1994) surveys a half-century of empathy research to conclude that its “true” nature is expressed as “the reactions of an observer to the experiences of a target” (p. 221). Capturing empathic interaction required attending to how the teacher (observer) responded to and interacted with students (target). Davis insists that empathizing “gives equal status to both cognition and emotion, process and outcome, disposition and situation” (p. 221). Likewise, empathy is understood in this study to be both emotional and intellectual (Batson et al. 1991; Eisenberg and Miller 1987; Wispé 1986). The emotional domain of empathy is widely referred to as empathic concern, or sympathy. The intellectual domain of empathy is termed perspective taking. Davis defines perspective taking as “the tendency to spontaneously adopt the psychological point of view of others in everyday life” (p. 57). Perspective taking is the centerpiece of empathy’s application. Still, the full expression of empathy in social interactions requires both perspective taking and empathic concern to varying degrees.

Unpacking Perspective Taking

Perspective taking has two primary modalities (Stotland 1969). The first is imagining how another person is experiencing his or her condition (imagine other). The second is imagining how one’s own self would personally experience another person’s condition (imagine self). The psychological frame used to interpret the condition under observation differentiates the modalities. Two separate questions also differentiate the two modalities: What is the target feeling in this moment? (imagine other) versus how would I feel if I were the target in this moment? (imagine self). Batson et al. (1997a) argue that the “imagine other” modality of perspective taking most likely produces non-egoistic empathetic responses. Simply put, these are observer responses taken on behalf of the target without regard to the benefit(s) earned by the observer for responding. Responses that singularly address what is best for the target are understood to be the catalyst for producing authentic altruistic motivation (Batson 1991). The “imagine other” modality was used in this study as evidence of empathy.

Furthermore, engaging the “imagine other” modality requires that the observer possess the capacity to surrender his or her own personal opinion, philosophies, beliefs, and points of view to embrace those of the target. Davis (1994) contends perspective taking involves both “suppression of one’s own egocentric perspective on events and the active entertaining of someone else’s” (p. 17). This is considered an advanced cognitive process. The ability to take perspective utilizing the “imagine other” modality improves over time. Both Davis and Wispé (1986) concur the process is engaged, active, and ever-changing depending on variables that include the social context of the observation situation and the personal relationship of the observer to the target.

Unpacking Empathic Concern

Empathic concern represents the feelings of sympathy, personal closeness, grief, and/or the emotional human connection of the observer to the target. Perspective taking underlies the demonstration of empathic concern (Batson et al. 2007; Davis 1994; Eisenberg and Miller 1987; Eisenberg and Strayer 1987; Hoffman 2000). Imagining how others are feeling moment by moment is central to one’s demonstration of empathic concern. Empathic concern is thought to be the signal that alerts the observer he or she must respond to the needs of another (Dovidio et al. 1990). Demonstrating this emotional dimension of empathy alone in interaction with others is incomplete without perspective taking as previously described. Antecedents of empathic concern might include feelings of tenderness and compassion (Batson 1991; Hoffman 2000). Also, empathic concern includes feelings of sorrow and personal distress based on the perception of one’s suffering or unfortunate circumstances (Batson et al. 1997a; Davis 1994). This process extends the observer’s perspective taking to the physical sharing of affect with the target. This sharing is an outwardly manifested demonstration of an intellectual understanding or interpretation of the target’s circumstances.

Early Observations of Empathy’s Relevance as a Teaching Disposition

Despite evidence that empathy is the precursor for authentic altruistic relationships (Batson 1991; Batson et al. 1991; Fultz et al. 1986), there is little empirical evidence in the education literature for how empathy is developed and applied to improve the quality of teachers’ efforts to improve student outcomes. When one considers the work teachers do to support the intellectual and social-emotional development of students, it is hard to dispute that teaching is a helping profession. There is a body of literature in the field that starts to unpack the utility of empathy as more than just an emotional response to others. Brazziel (1964) described empathetic teaching as,

An attempt on the part of the teacher to enter in the world of the child, to see the world through this child’s eyes and thus to equip themselves to utilize this child’s concepts to develop broader and more accurate concepts…[it’s] the surveying of the teacher’s arsenal of skills in the light of the observed needs of the child and the subsequent acquisition or improvement of the needed skills in-service…the sloughing off of traditional or approved methods of teaching and learning (p. 385).

Brazziel contends that the teacher’s work should be filtered through his or her understanding of what children need by placing students’ social and cultural perspectives at the center of their pedagogy. As students’ needs shift, so must the teacher’s response to those needs. Similar to Rogers (1975), Brazziel calls for teachers to engage with students “moment by moment” (p. 3) and be willing to resign “traditional or approved methods” (Brazziel 1964, p. 385) as appropriate.

Shortly following Brazziel’s work, a body of research emerges that emphasizes the utility of empathy for helping teachers to humanize the education enterprise for students of color. Researchers maintain that empathic interactions promote more nurturing classroom environments and the development of strong, positive student–teacher relationships (Aspy 1972, 1975a, b; Black and Phillips 1982; Coffman 1981; Stevens 1967). Empathy’s application augments the pedagogy of effective teachers by allowing them into the perceptual world of the child. In these cases, the teacher’s practice is driven by interpretation of students’ knowledge and experiences, and further guided by the dialectal exchange with the student.

Empathy as a Precedent for Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally diverse students deserve teachers who understand and appreciate their home lives and personal experiences. They also need teachers aware of the social and cultural implications of being a person of color in a multiracial society. Batson et al. (1997b) as well as Stephan and Finlay (1999) infer that empathy decreases prejudice against marginalized groups. Empathy is spotlighted in this study as a tool teachers use to successfully close “perception gaps” (O’Brien 2003) and minimize adverse outcomes associated with the misinterpretation of students’ behaviors, engagement, and motivation. Similarly, literature in the field of culturally responsive teaching advocates the importance of acquiring culturally accurate and socially appropriate perspectives of students, their families, and their communities (Gay 2010, 2013; Howard 2010; Warren 2005). Teachers interested in becoming more culturally responsive must submit themselves to the process of learning students. Learning students means acquiring a student-level understanding of their preferences for social interaction, learning styles, communication patterns, and issues that matter most to them.

Findings from studies of effective teachers of African American and Latino students infer empathy’s usefulness for helping teachers to demonstrate care, raise academic expectations, and adopt asset-based perspectives of youth (Dance 2002; Ladson-Billings 2006; Lawrence-Lightfoot 1985; Howard 2006; Milner 2010b; Warren 2005, 2012). Other scholars contend empathy is central to the work of all teachers (Argohde et al. 2013; Berman 2004; Cooper 2004, 2010; Cooper et al. 2000) but especially those preparing or planning to teach in multicultural and multi-lingual classroom settings (Dolby 2012; Korth et al. 2007; Parsons and Brown 2001). Arguments for empathy must be extended to include a more nuanced understanding of empathy’s benefits as well as the tensions associated with specific processes relative to its application by teachers who may be racially and/or culturally different from their students. These types of studies are almost non-existent. Research that features the interactions of students and teachers with contrasting identities may likely improve how empathy is conceptualized as a function of culturally responsive teaching in contemporary urban and public schools. This is a primary reason the interactions of White female teachers with their Black male students were chosen as the unit of analysis in the current study.

Empathy is viewed as the connective tissue that binds teachers to the realities of students’ experiences outside of school, their cultural norms, and values (Howard 2006; Ladson-Billings 1992, 2006; McAllister and Irvine 2002; Milner 2010b). Without some critical sense of how students view (a) themselves, (b) the teacher, and (c) the schooling process in general, teachers are left to their own assumptions of these things. These assumptions are largely informed by the privileges afforded to teachers through their own education attainment, social capital, mainstream-valued cultural capital, and access to resources beyond the reach of their school-age constituents. One’s social and cultural perspective filters other people’s behaviors and attitudes. The resulting determinations are used to judge what is right, appropriate, and good. These filters are socially constructed over time through social interaction, in part based on each person’s various subjective identities including their race, gender, and socio-economic status or class, for instance (see Cerulo 1997). Teachers must acquire students’ social and cultural perspective to maximize the effectiveness of their response to students’ specific cultural needs and to minimize the conflict that can occur from the cultural discontinuities between them.

Understanding the Application of Empathy to Student–Teacher Interaction

Empathy is enacted in daily interactions between students and teachers. Feshbach and Feshbach (2009) argue the application of empathy happens most poignantly during student–teacher interactions. Culturally responsive teaching luminary Geneva Gay (2010) firmly acknowledges that the process of learning requires ongoing “engagementinteraction … [and] dialectic discourse of students and teachers…” (p. 175). Likewise, understanding the application of empathy as a function of culturally responsive teaching necessitates studying the constant interchange of knowledge and discourse between students and teachers. The nature and quality of those interactions can predict the sorts of student outcomes that result from each interaction (Irvine and York 1995). Empathy likely improves the quality of teachers’ interactions with students.

Thus, the application of empathy is a professional disposition teachers engage to adopt students’ social and cultural perspectives for the purposes of better connecting learning experiences to students’ home culture and the various forms of their individual cultural expression. NCATE (2008) insists teacher candidates develop dispositions that enable them to “incorporate multiple perspectives in the subject matter being taught…” (p. 34). These perspectives are drawn from various sources including stakeholder “histories, experiences, and representations” (p. 36). Perspective taking and empathic concern are at the core of empathy’s application to student–teacher interactions. Also, student–teacher interactions are the sites for acquiring perspective. These interactions help make teachers more aware to real-time student feedback. Student feedback will be further explicated in the discussion section of the article. Lastly, developing an ongoing knowledge base of the political and historical contexts from which students emerge is a necessary and important step for perspective taking from the “imagine other” point of view. The percolation of this prior knowledge, demonstration of empathic concern, and the acquisition of new student-level information obtained through interaction characterize the application of empathy.

Given the dilemma of US public education’s failure to provide an equitable and adequate education to African-American (or Black) males in the US (see Davis 2003; Noguera 2003; Toldson and Lewis 2012), the author chose to narrow the focus of this study to the interactions of White female teachers identified as successful with this population in one school district. The argument of empathy’s utility for improving the interactions of teachers and students who are culturally different was put on display in this project. A fundamental assumption of this research is that White female teachers who are demonstrating success with Black males are exhibiting some degree of empathy. The aim of the study, then, is to capture evidence of empathy based on an established framework of empathy’s expression in social relationships, not to create new definitions of empathy. The cultural dissonance between White women and their Black male students made studying the strength of empathy’s application both challenging and highly informative.


Social psychologist Mark H. Davis’ (1994) model charts the expression of empathy through the antecedents, processes, intrapersonal outcomes, and interpersonal outcomes of the observation situation. His model “emphasize[s] the connectedness of these constructs” (p. 12) and was used to systematically organize, analyze, and synthesize the application of empathy through a combination of student–teacher interactions, interviews, focus groups, and results from an empathy survey.

Sampling, Setting, and Participants

Each teacher participant was chosen based on nominations by her principal and a group of her past and/or present Black male students in a mid-sized school district in the Midwest. The district was predominately White just 10 years prior to data collection, but had seen an influx of many more students of color. At the time of data collection, Black students were about 66 % of the student population. Many of the Black students were from a large city undergoing “urban renewal”. The teaching force in this district has remained over 90 % White.

A modified version of Ladson-Billings’ (1994) community sampling approach was utilized to select teachers for participation in this study. One 30-min structured interview was conducted with the administrators of two high schools (East and West) in the district. Each administrator compiled a list of White female teachers in their building who they believed demonstrate evidence of cultural responsiveness based on indicators from the literature (Gay 2002, 2010; Howard 2010; Ladson-Billings 1994). At the conclusion of the interview, the administrators submitted a list of five to eight names for consideration.

Three 1-h focus groups (Kamberelis and Dimitriadis 2005) were conducted with Black male juniors and seniors. The boys were randomly selected to create a heterogeneous grouping. They participated in a discussion of their experiences with White female teachers while in high school during their lunch period. The students characterized teachers nominated for the study as exceptionally caring, approachable, and patient. At the end of the discussion, the students compiled and ranked a list of White female teachers in their school who they believed were particularly “understanding” of their needs and receptive to their learning preferences. The boys cited examples of how each woman demonstrated compassion such as taking private time to counsel a student through a tragedy in the student’s life, or examples of when the teacher made some sort of accommodation to ensure the student’s academic success.

Each administrator’s list was then compared with the student list. The teachers whose name appeared on both lists beginning with the top ranked teachers on the student list were invited to participate in the study. Ms. Arnold, Ms. Babcock, Ms. Coleman, and Ms. Dantley (pseudonyms) were the four White female teachers recruited for participation. Each of these women granted consent and were not paid for their participation.


The four high school teachers participated in four interviews, a set of classroom observations, and completed an empathy survey. The women discuss and define empathy during their initial interview. They then took an empathy survey that combined an empathy questionnaire designed by Warren (2012) and Davis’ (1980, 1983) Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI), a validated empathy assessment tool. The questionnaire inquired of the teacher’s conceptions and application of empathy relevant to their work with Black male students. The survey provided a platform for in-depth discussions of empathy’s utility for bolstering culturally responsive teaching. Also, the teacher participants’ response to the IRI questions were the springboard for a rich conversation of empathy’s relevance and significance to their work with students of color. Finally, teacher participants completed two 1 and ½ hour semi structured follow-up interviews and an exit interview. Each interview was used to clarify and extend understanding of what was observed in the four women’s classroom interactions with Black male students. Whole class periods were observed according to Ladson-Billings’ (1994) method of alternating observations between morning and afternoon classes once or twice a week over a ten-week data collection period. Each teacher participant received over 500 min of observation.

Non-participant observation (Rossman and Rallis 2003) of each classroom was utilized. The researcher entered class with students, left with them, and had no conversation or contact during classroom observation periods. Interactions were observed in time intervals (Bakeman and Gottman 1997). One interval could range between 15 or 30 s and 1.5 min and included direct observation of an entire interaction between the teacher participant and a student or a group of Black male students. Immediately following the interaction, the researcher stopped observing and looked away to code as many details of the observation as possible into the observation protocol; a protocol developed using Davis’ (1994) empathy model of antecedents, processes, and outcomes previously mentioned. Observations of student–teacher interaction included documentation of how each teacher communicated academic and behavior expectations, teacher response to various student behaviors, how teacher’s greet students and demonstrate approval, and charting the effect of subtle teacher behaviors such as “wait time” on student-related outcomes (Rowe 1974).

Data Analysis

The systematic analysis of each interaction is referred to as “event recording” (Bakeman and Gottman 1997, p. 54). Empathy is expressed as a behavioral, intellectual, and emotional response. The “events” recorded are initially coded as an interaction type (see Table 1). Then each interaction type was analyzed to identify themes in teacher behaviors, attitudes, instructional activities and approaches. These patterns produced the themes coded as either perspective taking and/or empathic concern.
Table 1

Interaction types and observation cues

Interaction type

Intended outcomes

Observation cue

Academic (AI)

Content knowledge acquisition and student intellectual development; Improve, extend, or build on student subject area content knowledge related to the lesson objective(s)

Small group and whole group instruction; Assigning classroom intellectual tasks and scaffolding student progress; Student Assessment

Behavioral (BI)

Modify student behavior or conduct to ensure maintenance of a rigorous, intellectually stimulating classroom environment.

Dismissal from class for disciplinary infraction; Discipline referral; Verbal reprimand; Reiterating or reinforcing expectations for student conduct

Social/Relational (SRI)

Development of positive student–teacher relationship that establishes and maintains a safe, affirming classroom environment.

Light-hearted, random, unstructured student–teacher conversation arbitrary to stated learning objectives; Activities, games, or icebreakers meant to demonstrate congruence between teacher and students’ social interests that are non-academic, which include sports, popular media, arts, school happenings, or mainstream entertainment

The behavioral themes were further clarified and validated by each teacher participant during the follow up and exit interviews. These interviews were used to a) discern the intellectual processes motivating certain patterns in behaviors as well as to b) confirm the author’s inferences of the teacher participant’s emotions during observed interactions. Ms. Arnold, Babcock, Coleman, and Dantley were presented with data from their observations and asked to talk at length about the intentions, priorities, and motivations informing behavior patterns noted during classroom observations. These semi-structured interviews were also used for member checking purposes (Lincoln and Guba 1985; Rossman and Rallis 2003). The author refined and confirmed initial themes and codes from the classroom observation data during the follow up and exit interviews. See Table 2 for an overview of the relationship of the data collection procedure to the Davis (1994) model.
Table 2

Overview of data collection procedure in relationship to Davis Model

(Davis, 1994, p. 12)



“Characteristics of the observer, target, or situation”

Classroom observation

Lesson objective(s); Student behavior prior to onset of interaction; Teacher actions preceding the interaction; Question(s) asked precipitating the interaction; Student or teacher statements preceding the interaction; Student learning activity; Teacher directions


“Particular [behavioral and intellectual] mechanisms by which empathic outcomes are produced”

Teacher participant quotes during follow-up interview

“I always think 4 steps ahead…”

“Raising my voice doesn’t get me anywhere…I learned to calmly communicate behavior expectations…”

“I’ve had kids call me Mom. Though I’m harsh on some very specific things, I have decided [emphasis added] to modify my interactions with mostly boys”

Intrapersonal outcomes

“Cognitive and affective responses [emphasis added] produced in the observer which are not manifested in overt behavior toward the target”

Classroom observation

Teacher smiling, frowning, or indifferent facial expression; Moved closer to student; Raised voice; Personal contact with student; Kneeled down near student; Kept neutral position; Ignored question

Follow-up interview questions

“I noticed you do not raise your voice when disciplining students What is your priority for behavior x? What outcomes do you expect or anticipate?”

Interpersonal outcomes

“Behavioral responses directed toward the target”

Classroom observation


Moved student seat; Reread directions; Ignored student behavior; Rearranged student groups


Put head down; continues talking to another student; completes assignment and hands it into the teacher

Follow-up and exit interview

“How is student x performing in your class?” “Why did you respond to student y the way you did?”

The interview data were analyzed using a phenomenological approach (Moustakas 1994). Interview transcripts were read three times to identify cogent themes attributable to Davis’ definition of empathic concern and perspective taking. The interview findings were then used to triangulate classroom observations, data from focus groups, and results from administration of the IRI. Several themes emerged that relate to teachers’ demonstration of empathic concern and engagement in perspective taking activities.


The central focus of this study was to probe how empathy is applied as a professional disposition of teachers in a culturally diverse school setting. The application of empathy includes perspective taking (PT) and empathic concern (EC). Data from observations, student focus groups, Davis’ (1983) IRI, and interviews were used to describe evidence of PT and EC. Results from the IRI are discussed followed by descriptions of the teachers’ behaviors and activities found to be examples of perspective taking and empathic concern, and a brief snapshot of the teachers’ student outcomes.

Interpersonal Reactivity Index

Every teacher’s interactions looked very different based on a number of factors that include life history, previous teaching and professional experiences, and personality. The IRI was not used as a tool to judge definitively which teacher had the greatest capacity for expressing empathy or to quantify who had the most empathic interactions. This would be a distraction to the study’s aim of describing empathy as a professional disposition. Each teacher participant had a reputation for being exceptional based on the report of her administrator and students. The assumption, then, going into the study was that each woman demonstrated some evidence of perspective taking and empathic concern even if she did not use the language of empathy to describe her actions.

The questions on the IRI provided the teacher participants with a language to reflect on and modify their conceptions of empathy’s relevance and application to interactions with Black male students versus empathy with family, friends, and strangers. Ms. Coleman reported being a more emotional person declaring, “Reading some of the questions, I’m like yeah, that’s totally me. Like, I can cry at a commercial… I am a really emotional person”. Coincidentally, Coleman tended to have more emotionally driven interactions with her Black male students. Whereas, Ms. Babcock admits she has “those moments” when she engages the “fluffy emotional stuff”, but she doesn’t allow “it [her emotion] to be an excuse”. Ms. Babcock confirms she purposely abstains from allowing her emotions to cloud her judgment. She doesn’t allow how she feels to scapegoat students meeting high academic expectations in class. She does not draw that line until after taking the IRI. Prior to completing the IRI, her conception of empathy had more of a sympathetic, “feeling for” others, tone, which is very similar to Ms. Coleman and the other two teacher participants’ general conception of empathy.

Ms. Arnold and Ms. Dantley admit not being very emotional, “hugger” types in their interviews. They distinguish themselves from the other two teachers as much less likely to be very emotional or personal with students. This was consistent in the interaction patterns observed in their classrooms and their slightly higher scores on the perspective taking scale over scores on the empathic concern scale of empathy on the IRI. They tended to keep physical distance from students a majority of the time and were not nearly as jovial with students as Ms. Babcock was observed to be, for example. Ms. Dantley says “I’m not all sunshine and roses all the time”. She does not want to be perceived as a “pushover”, but it is important to her students know that she is treating them fairly. Dantley admits she is “freak[ed] out” by teachers who she perceives are too friendly with their students. The two women will make personal concessions to adjust as necessary for individual students, but work hard to maintain strict boundaries.

Perspective Taking

Perspective taking precedes any attempt to communicate or respond to student needs. The sections to follow describe various steps teacher participants take to acquire student social and cultural perspective. Teachers use what they know about students to make professional decisions regarding instructional planning, implementation, and the negotiation of interpersonal interactions with them.

Written and Oral Communication

Three of the four teachers use some form of writing in their classes regularly. These activities provide the teachers with knowledge of students they may not otherwise have available to them. They may pose prompts related to the reading assignment or to prep students for a debate. Ms. Dantley’s students write daily and she reads every student’s journal entry weekly and writes back to them in their journal. She claims, “I get a lot of feedback in journals. So, I get some things, even like, ‘Hey, this lesson that you did was really great…and I appreciate you’”.The journals are generally related to the lesson, but Dantley allows students to freely express their ideas or perspectives with little restraint. Ms. Dantley emphasizes that she reads “every page, line by line, sentence by sentence” and that students know this. It’s a good way to build “personal relationships” she confirms.

Ms. Coleman’s students write letters at the beginning, middle, and end of the school year to introduce themselves, chronicle their experiences in her course, and offer feedback for how she can improve their learning experiences. The writing assignments are used to gauge students’ academic progress, but are also used to evaluate how students are functioning emotionally in the class. The assignments are usually personally relevant to students’ lived experiences. For example, Ms. Coleman’s advanced language class completed a writing assignment that they knew would have to be read aloud. The academic assignment became an opportunity for perspective taking for her and the class when one student divulged in his oratory that he was gay. These writing assignments were a routine part of the course, and students were often asked to read their work in front of the class. Coleman successfully created a classroom atmosphere where the student felt comfortable expressing himself in this very personal way. The nature of the classroom environment and the safety of the classroom community showed up as important variables for transforming students’ written and oral communication into authentic forms of perspective taking.

Similarly, other forms of communication were observed. Ms. Babcock and Ms. Arnold have question boxes. Students write down questions they don’t feel comfortable asking out loud. The teachers then answer those questions during class at designated times. The teachers would also incorporate students’ questions into their lesson planning, projects, and assignments, as they deem appropriate. These questions gave the teachers much personal insight into students’ lives that students would likely have never shared otherwise.

The four teachers are generally amenable to students walking up to hold private conversations at will, though, less instances of this were found with Ms. Arnold and Dantley. They were not as comfortable with students approaching them. At various points throughout data collection, each teacher was found to initiate extemporaneous conversations with students mostly in social/relational interactions. Dantley offers, “Sometimes…students just come to you or they’re comfortable talking to you about anything.” For perspective taking to work, students have to feel as if the teacher is a trusted source for quality feedback and that they are safe from judgment. Students in the focus group claim teachers who are approachable and take their time answering questions no matter how long it takes them to learn a particular concept, for example, are the ones they value most.

Understanding of the Community Context

Three of the four teachers went to high school in the district where they now teach. This point did not come out until after the teachers were nominated, recruited, and consented participation in the study. Ms. Babcock and Ms. Coleman teach in the high schools where they attended. Ms. Babcock, Coleman, and Dantley use their personal experience of being from the community to make sense of and interpret their students’ personal experiences. Ms. Babcock reflects fondly on growing up “right down the street” from East (where she currently teaches), even though she doesn’t currently reside in that community. Ms. Dantley teaches at West, the rival high school where she attended (East). She goes on to say, “They know I’m from here and that I’m not a person of extreme privilege”. Dantley draws on her working class background and upbringing in the neighborhood to communicate her familiarity with the students’ home lives. Similarly, Babcock and Coleman are heard making reference to neighborhood eateries and student-hang out spots in their interactions with students as credibility relative to their knowledge of the community’s past and present. The women cited their in-depth knowledge of the community where they teach as a factor of their success in the classroom. This knowledge is a frame of reference they use to relate to students’ personal lives outside of school.

“Family Business”: Organized, structured time for student expression

Each teacher participant sets aside time during the week in their classes for students to talk openly and express themselves about topics or matters of importance to them. The conversation is student-centered and student-led. Ms. Arnold, Ms. Coleman, and Ms. Dantley will, usually on a Monday, ask students about their weekends and what they did while away from school also during class time. The students discuss parties they attended, family members who may have recently passed away, what they did on romantic dates, or plans they are making for upcoming school events. The teachers listen intently, ask clarifying questions, and demonstrate attentiveness to the student sharing by nodding and making eye contact. They will then sometimes respond with advice or gratitude for the student sharing his or her story with the class. Typically, these times are short (less than 10 min) at the beginning of class before moving into that day’s activities. The teachers will follow up with individual students throughout the week to inquire about something the student has said during this time.

Ms. Babcock makes this time a routine part of every class period of every school day. She reminisces that the idea of “family business” happened serendipitously. She adds enthusiastically, “Like I made it up. I didn’t read it in a book. I didn’t get it. And I don’t even know where I came up with this. Like just one day, I felt like this was a good idea.” Babcock begins each class period enthusiastically by saying, “Good morning/afternoon young lovelies. Who has family business?” Students tell stories, discuss assignments due in other classes, or debate about popular culture. Ms. Babcock does not limit the conversation to what is going on in the student’s life. Sometimes she will share interesting stories or allow students to perform rap or tell jokes. Ms. Babcock refuses to silence any student. Every young person who desires to participate in family business is allowed the space and opportunity to do so.

Sometimes family business is really short, less than 5 min. On other days it is considerably longer. Babcock emphasizes, “Oh, my God, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.” She cites family business as a tool extremely beneficial for helping her to get to know students as well as to build trust and community in her classroom. When asked if she would be reprimanded for substituting significant portions of her instructional time to facilitate family business, she retorted that relationships with students are what matter most to her. Babcock concludes that without allowing students to express themselves freely, she runs the risk they will be distracted throughout her lesson because those same issues, stories, and questions will loom in their heads; they need an outlet for open disclosure and she learns a lot about them in the process.

Prior Knowledge

Teachers use previous teaching experiences and prior interactions with Black male students as perspective for negotiating subsequent interactions. Ms. Arnold, Babcock, Coleman, and Dantley report “trial and error” as significant to how they have learned to negotiate interactions with students. Each teacher has at least 7 years teaching experience at the time of data collection. Ms. Arnold was in her 14 year of teaching. They reflect that many mistakes were made earlier in their careers that they learned from. For example, one behavior pattern consistent across each of the four teacher participants was that they rarely raised their voice when negotiating behavioral interactions. Each teacher discusses having learned from previous experience that yelling was not an effective means of discipline with Black students. Very few physical displays of anger or frustration with Black males were observed, especially with the boys who had a reputation of being very disruptive in class. Ms. Dantley concedes,

I’m not going to say that I was always like this – like I was always collected like that. You know, my first couple of years of teaching, if I was mad I was that teacher that blew up, and then it was a free for all…I feel like It just makes it worse.

The teachers admit that they have practiced managing visible signs of frustration, though they are not always successful.

Ms. Coleman submits that most of her classes are well behaved and so she doesn’t ever have to raise her voice. However, her seventh period class is a different story. Two bright Black boys in her class are very inquisitive and bring a tremendous amount of energy to the course; energy that can either move the class forward or significantly impair the class’ productivity. Coleman admits she gets frustrated and may become visibly frazzled from time to time with the boys because the class is so easily distracted by their actions. She also laments her guilt for not always responding to the acute needs of other students in the course. One response she takes is to increase the rigor of the class. Her interpretation of the boys’ behavior is that they are actually leaders, but easily bored and disengaged. Coleman leverages the young men’s peer influence to improve the overall quality of her instruction by assigning more thoughtful in-class assignments and increasing the pace of the course. As a result, she the class stays on track to meet lesson objectives more often.

Analogously, one particular student in one of Ms. Arnold’s class is admittedly a “pain in [her] side.” He attempts to thwart the class’ progress often. Ms. Arnold has learned to respond to him by “thinking four steps ahead”. This she says “limits his ability to come back at [her] with something that [she] can’t just shut down”. Arnold redirects his attempts by using his wit against him. This student is rarely ever kicked out of class or written up for discipline referral, whereas this student receives a discipline referral almost daily in his other classes. Arnold strategically disrupts his attempts to derail class by routinely inconveniencing herself and other students to provide this student with the extra attention she perceives he needs. Arnold regularly negotiates instructional arrangements that keep the student accountable for his behavior. He was earning a B in her course at the time of data collection during the third of four marking periods.

Empathic Concern

As cited earlier in this paper, empathic concern is a product of perspective taking. Teachers have to imagine how students are feeling to determine the appropriate emotional, caring, or sympathetic response in their interactions with students. Ms. Arnold, Babcock, Coleman, and Dantley each initially describe empathy as a primarily emotional response. The teachers start to think about its application differently after completing the IRI. The pointed questions in the IRI assessing empathic concern such as “I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me” changed how they thought about their application of empathy in day-to-day interactions with Black males. The teachers draw a line between caring and allowing students to use difficult circumstances as an excuse not to perform academically. The following section is a description of the activities and strategies the teacher participants employ that suggest the demonstration of empathic concern.

Attention to the Needs of the “Whole Child”

Each teacher participant discusses caring about the whole child and not just his academic performance. One student in the East high school focus group rationalizes selecting Ms. Arnold and Ms. Babcock by insisting they are “almost like a parent”. The interactions these women have with their students, though very different, translate and demonstrate care in ways that the students identify as similar to their own parents and guardians. One student says Ms. Arnold may “cuss you out” for being unprepared for class, but then make sure you have what you need to be successful. The teacher participants in this study regularly make attempts to intervene when they perceive that students have specific needs that are being unmet, even if those needs are beyond the boundaries of their responsibility as a teacher. Students in the focus groups underscore that the teachers they nominated make them feel heard and that their personal lives are important to the teachers.

Ms. Coleman maintains that caring is “not just worrying about their academic success but worrying about their personal success, social success in life, caring about their home life, being involved and an active participant in who they are and who they become”. The four teachers offer examples of hard discussions they have had with students regarding behavioral discipline or student who are failing their course. In those discussions the women talk about the importance of helping students to understand that she will go to great lengths to ensure he is successful, but that the student must have a stake in his achievement. Ms. Arnold, Babcock, Coleman, and Dantley view their relationships with students as strategic partnerships.

Students in the focus group also passionately believed the teacher participants really “want students to learn”. During one of Ms. Dantley’s English classes, her student Julian (pseudonym) came in visibly perplexed, asking about “ocean rules”. Dumbfounded by his query, Dantley proceeds to question Julian about what he means. After 10 min, she realizes he is asking about OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rules. He had just left a class about health occupations without getting his question answered. She said of the interaction, “If the students are learning something, I’ve done my job”. She emphasizes the importance of valuing a student’s intellectual curiosities and that her job is to respond to those curiosities even when they are not necessarily in her academic content area.

Utilizing the Concept of Family

Ms. Babcock and Ms. Coleman use the language of “family” to establish classroom norms for communication, behavioral expectation, and academic engagement. They will often use metaphors related to being members of a family to communicate behavioral expectations, compassion, and sympathy. Ms. Babcock has a board labeled “our family” with each students name on the board. Ms. Coleman welcomes students to Spanish class by immediately telling them, “Somos Familia” or “We are Family”. Ms. Babcock reflects on meeting students and telling them, “Do you get mad at your Mom sometimes? ‘Yes’. Will you get mad at me? ‘Yes’. Will I get mad at you? ‘Yes’. Am I going to kick you out just because I’m mad? ‘No’.” They want students to feel cared for, respected, and valued in the classroom. To that end, the concept of family is used with students as one approach to partner with them and to develop norms for the types of student–teacher interactions to be had throughout the year. Babcock and Coleman see it as a way to immediately bond with students and to communicate to students that they matter beyond their academic performance in the classroom.

Teacher Availability

Demonstrating empathic concern also means being available and flexible to student differences. Focus group participants appreciate teachers who are accessible; who create classroom atmospheres friendly to student inquiry and support. For instance, Ms. Babcock leaves her door open during ninth period for Black male seniors to come sit in the class. Some of these young men are former students, while others may have interacted with her because of their participation on a sports team when she was the school’s assistant athletic director. Babcock lets them come into her class because she is concerned that they don’t want to leave school. Rather than getting in trouble in the hallway or on the street, the seniors will sit in her freshmen biology course, and sometimes tutor the younger students in her class. Ms. Babcock defends this action by arguing, “I’ve always said that, you know, every child needs three things: love, discipline, and attention. And that’s really what I try to do for every kid is, you know, give them attention”. Another student cites Ms. Babcock as extremely supportive as he dealt with his father’s diagnosis with a terminal disease. Like Ms. Babcock, the other three teacher participants also report they believe in the importance of being available to students.

Getting to Know Students

The teacher participants also demonstrate empathic concern by carving out time in class and out of class to get to know students. Family business was referenced earlier in the paper. Babcock learned how to parallel her emotional response to students during this time. She did this to demonstrate that she listens to them and that she is sharing affectively with them. Babcock explains that using student language and understanding their dispositions is important for improving the lines of communication between her and the students. Similarly, one focus group participant nominated Ms. Coleman because she “really got to know [him]”. Another student rejoined that Coleman does not treat students differently “based on how [they] act in class”. Ms. Coleman is known to respond to each individual student differently based on what she knows about him and what she believes he may need in that moment. A student comments that Ms. Dantley is “willing to talk to you and hear you out and listen to your opinion and views”. The young man most appreciates that Dantley will take the time to listen when compared to other White female teachers he has encountered. Getting to know students came up multiple times during the focus groups. These efforts produced emotional connections with students and a trust that the teachers cultivated over the course of the school year.

Student Outcomes

It is imperative to reiterate that these four teachers were chosen based on several indicators of culturally responsive teaching. The schools where they teach have over 65 % students of color. Their school administrators selected them because a majority of their Black students are academically successful according to student performance on state tests and school level interim assessments. The teachers have low incidences of discipline referral or excessive out of classroom disciplinary action they take against their Black male students. They are commended as being culturally competent based on their knowledge of, interactions with, and actions on behalf of students of color in their school. In sum, they are well respected by student and administrative stakeholders. Over half of Ms. Babcock, Coleman, and Dantley’s Black male students were earning at least a C in their courses at the time of data collection.


Empathy as a stand-alone concept is viewed in this study as the expression of both EC and PT. The themes listed above are consistent with extant literature in culturally responsive teaching for the types of characteristics that make teachers effective with culturally and linguistically diverse students (Gay 2010; Howard 2001; Ladson-Billings 1994). The preceding section paints a picture for how teachers may begin acquiring student perspective, but also how that perspective guides instructional decision-making. Thus, a pedagogy or model for the application of empathy must include replicable strategies like those mentioned in the findings section of this article used for the intensive purpose of acquiring students’ social and cultural perspectives. It must hold that each student—regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status similarities with other students—brings his or her own diversity to the classroom. That diversity is valuable and should inform teachers’ professional decision-making. Finally, this instructive model must capture a process teachers can use to gauge the accuracy of the assumptions they make in their work and to assess the appropriateness of their “reactions” (Davis 1994, p. 221) to youth. The remainder of this paper is devoted to describing and assessing the feasibility of such a model.

Towards a Pedagogy for the Application of Empathy: An Instructional Framework

The first phase of empathy’s application in the professional classroom context includes PT and the demonstration of EC. Perspective taking may include the implementation of activities, strategies, rituals, and policies meant to obtain first person, micro-level knowledge of students. The priority should be the “imagine other” modality of perspective taking. Empathic concern encompasses teacher behaviors that communicate a mutual sharing of emotion, feeling, or experience with students. This includes teachers’ expressions of sympathy. EC also includes the teacher’s reassurance that solidarity exists between students’ ideas, feelings, and concerns about their circumstance and the teacher’s own ideas, feelings, and concerns about the student’s circumstance.

The second phase is the strategic negotiation of new knowledge acquired from the enactment of PT and the adjustments teachers make in response to student feedback. This feedback figures prominently in the application of empathy. This phase is recursive. In phase two teachers interpret what they think they know about students and they translate that interpretation into their practice. The two phases of empathy’s application are not mutually exclusive. They happen together and can occur multiple times in one interaction. Figure one is a conceptual model of the two phases of empathy’s application (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Phases of empathy’s application

Student Feedback

Student feedback is communicated in the form of intellectual and social outcomes, but also on-the-spot student responses to teacher actions. When asked how they knew that students understood they cared or that students felt as if they were understood, the four teacher participants agreed students always offer some form of feedback. It might be a student saying, “You know I love you Ms. Dantley” as the author heard by one of Ms. Dantley’s Black male students. “They always come back…” says Ms. Arnold. Examples that range from student’s immediate compliance with the teacher’s directive to walking out of class without permission were coded as student feedback. This concrete behavioral information teachers receive from students is a form of perspective taking, which should inform how he or she adjusts or modifies future interactions with students. For example, a student who has a habit of putting his head down when certain intellectual tasks are asked of him is a form of feedback that teachers may use to rethink their instructional approach with this student. At the same time, his behavior can be interpreted in many different ways depending on any number of antecedents. Factors for consideration when planning a response may include the present state of the student–teacher relationship, perception of student confidence level with instructional content, teacher bias or stereotypes, and personal knowledge of student learning disability.

The goal of the teacher in phase 1 is to acquire as much information as she can by engaging the “imagine other” form of perspective taking. She needs to resign her assumptions for why he disengages and seek to understand, from the student’s perspective, why he disengages so easily on certain types of intellectual tasks. This may take time to figure out. Essentially, the teacher would continue to engage the cycle of trying new approaches and reading student responses as a human text of sorts, until she and the student are able to produce an outcome that is ultimately favorable for the student and does not compromise the rigor of course expectations. This mutually negotiated partnership between teacher and student promotes accountability and an understanding that will likely shade each future interaction, regardless of type (Table 1).

Teachers who have little to no experience in communities of color benefit greatly from the social and cultural perspectives students provide through interaction with them. The disproportionality of power between teacher and student, however, determines whose voice is heard, whose voice is silenced, or whether there is a balance that will be maintained (Delpit 1995). Phase two is especially key as it accounts for both initial actions teachers take to produce intended outcomes, but also the feedback students provide. Feedback hints at the effectiveness of the teacher’s effort(s). Feedback is similar to the listening and responding to students Gay (2010), Howard (2001, 2010), and Ladson-Billings (2006) advocates for in their work. Noguera (2009) argues listening to students can significantly improve school decision making as it relates to maintaining discipline and order, building relationships with school stakeholders, bolstering student motivation, and responding to the impact of standardized testing. Developing the ability to put aside personal beliefs and to learn from students by finding and creating opportunities to listen is extremely valuable. This form of feedback functions as another opportunity for perspective taking to happen.

Other Considerations: The Application of Empathy as a Disposition of Culturally Responsive Teachers

The nature and quality of student–teacher interactions should be primarily judged by a cumulative set of outcomes those interactions produce over the course of the year. Every teacher’s interpretive process and ability to translate knowledge of students in culturally congruent and affirming ways is less discernible than the tangible product of student outcomes and feedback. Some days teachers will do a good job of communicating and responding directly to the needs of students, other days they will not. Naming a teacher as more or less empathetic is peripheral to the outcomes of every interaction he or she has with students. Theoretically, a teacher can be deemed highly empathetic by some based on subjective notions of empathy and have no greater outcomes than the teacher who is perceived to have very little empathy. Therefore, trial and error should be expected. This was a reoccurring theme across the interviews with each teacher participant. The four White female teachers in this study learned from their mistakes during previous academic, behavioral, and social/relational interactions with Black males, and made the necessary adjustments until they found a formula for individual students that worked. The application of empathy, like culturally responsive teaching as a whole, is an iterative process that takes time to perfect and fine tune.

This study considers to a limited degree the implications of teacher subjective identities such as her race and gender. The teachers in this study have no issue acknowledging that they are White women initially unfamiliar with many of the students’ lived realities, however, they did struggle with the reality that they did not treat all students the same. When asked, they agreed that they do treat all of their students the same regardless of race or gender. In contrast, evidence from observation of their interactions show that they did not treat all students the same, and that was okay. They modify the processes to help their Black male students meet high expectations, but they did not modify the expectation itself. A teacher’s awareness and explicit acknowledgment that they are different from students is essential. Other differences not physically apparent such as the difference in philosophy, ideology, and life experience are made visible through the multiple exchanges they have with one another. How teachers respond is of greatest consequence for whether or not the difference will become an opportunity or an obstacle. Teachers cannot control the circumstances that accompany students to school. The application of empathy partially releases students of the blame for their failure and places more emphasis on the responsibility of the institution and its agents to respond appropriately.

Accordingly, engaging in the application of empathy for those aiming to become more culturally responsive requires humility and flexibility on the teacher’s part. Teachers must also be aware that they may never become perfect at this process. Earning students’ trust so that they are comfortable being vulnerable and revealing more of themselves to the teacher should be a priority. The more a teacher knows about a student, the more equipped she is to organize an instructional program that caters directly to his social and intellectual needs.


Understanding the application of empathy as previously described implies teachers can be trained to exhibit evidence of empathy as a professional disposition in their practice. Much like the teachers profiled in Milner’s (2008b) study of urban teachers, the four teacher participants in the current study have differing philosophies and approaches, but yet are effective. Helping teachers find creative ways to acquire student social and cultural perspective should be an explicit goal of teacher educators and professional development programs. Approaches like the use of storytelling by the teachers in Baskerville (2011) study allow for teachers to construct firsthand knowledge of students’ home lives. This is an essential and explicit form of perspective taking, even though up to now the language of perspective taking has been rarely used in the professional literature. Teacher preparation programs are where teachers’ development and expertise applying empathy begins. This is also the time as NCATE (2008) argues when they should be taught how to acquire perspectives based on the social, historical, political, and cultural context of where they may end up teaching. The process should be understood as imperfect given the substantial demand applying empathy places on one’s own cognitive effort and personal humanity. However, becoming adept at tasks such as perspective taking improves over time with age, experience, and maturity (Decety and Ickes, 2009).

The significance of talking across the disciplines to inform teacher education, learning, and professional development is established through the utilization of social psychology in this study to analyze teachers’ academic, behavioral, and social/relational interactions with students. More research must be done to examine if and how teachers’ own conceptions of empathy intersect and inform their professional decision-making. Systematic observation and interviews with students and teachers are needed to continue capturing the complexity of the empathy application process. Empirical research investigating the multiple interactions of effective teachers of culturally and linguistically diverse students will undoubtedly refine construction of the model proposed here. These models will need to be adapted to assist teacher educators to determine appropriate in-class and clinical activities to prepare teachers for diverse learning environments.


The author would like to thank Amy Brown and Ali Michael for their thoughtful feedback on earlier drafts of this document.

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013