• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


More Thoughts on Empathy: Freedom Works

I try to empathize with students because they're bad students, not in spite of them being bad students.

August 6, 2016



Following the incident that caused me to realize something that should’ve been obvious – all students deserve empathy – in order to take the next step in applying empathy to my teaching, I had to extend it to an unexpected person.

My past self.

Because I was not a particularly good student in the sense of always attending class, studying hard, etc… – and my grades sometimes reflected that reality – I tended to think the same was true of my students who skipped class or otherwise didn’t appear to be putting in the effort necessary to excel.

The narrative I’d internalized about my younger self was that I was “lazy,” and so too were these students.

It was easy to believe it. “Doesn’t live up to his potential” was my middle name, and my general lassitude when it came to household chores or other non self-directed responsibilities gained me a rep that, to some degree, still sticks.

But age/experience/wisdom/whatever you want to call it, has revealed that I’m not particularly lazy. In fact, I work quite hard, provided I’m doing the kind of work that I find stimulating and fulfilling. Nowadays it’s tougher to get me to stop working than it is to get me to start.

But if a light bulb in a ceiling fixture needs changing, or the dishwasher needs emptying, you will hear me moan and groan about having to do that work.

If I am lazy, it is because the stuff I don’t find fulfilling (that satisfaction of a well-mowed lawn) is the stuff that our culture equates with probity. Non lazy people are capable of doing stuff they don’t want to.

This is true, but it doesn’t mean the rest of us are defective.

On a continuum with intrinsic motivation on one side and extrinsic motivation on the other, I am almost entirely on the intrinsic side.[1]

I often wish it were different, that I was more motivated by money or attention or status. I like those things as much as anyone else, but they don’t seem to do much to propel me forward towards success.

The strangest thing in hindsight, is that even though I am this kind of person, when I became an instructor, I initially swallowed the standard education industry values whole, incentivizing student achievement through conformity and grades.

I believed in my own supposed defects, and when I saw them in students, tried to (metaphorically) beat them out of them, just as had been done to me.

Over the years, though, I’ve come much closer to believing that I didn’t suck, school did (and does).

Rather than seeing myself as defective, I began to question why I could work hard at some things, but not others. What was the difference? Where was the divide?

I also started asking students about their experiences both in my class and others. What I found was that by and large, other than the students who truly thrived at the “school” parts of school (who were overwhelmingly extrinsically motivated), students saw very little purpose to school other than it was something you were just supposed to do in order to become a “successful” person. Sometimes a course or assignment would spark an interest, but by and large it was a grind.

In considering empathy and studenting, I began to expand my compassion beyond situations were external phenomena (trauma, life circumstances, etc.) prevented them from being good students to the very nature of being a student.

What was I privileging? What was I asking them to do? What were the consequences of my requirements?

For example: if attendance is so important, why was I making it compulsory? Students could still choose to skip class, but the consequences were so severe, I’d left them no choice at all. But if it was truly important, truly meaningful, wouldn't students (good, bad, or otherwise) choose to be in class?

Here’s the crazy thing I realized: when I ditched compulsory attendance, the course became more rigorous, not less.

Now, students had to confront themselves and what mattered to them, not what mattered to me.

Many find it scary, but hopefully in a good way. I found myself empathizing with less successful students not in spite of, but because of their lack of performance. The greater the struggle to conform, the more sympathy I had. This seemed to make the act of teaching even more interesting. Teaching was not a perfomance, but a process itself, student learning a problem to be solved in collaboration between instructor and student.

Over time, I’ve extended that spirit of choice further and further, into the types of assignments I give, and now, by using a grading contract, to how I assess them.

As an adult in the world, my most precious commodity is freedom. It’s freedom that allows me to do my best and most interesting work, the work that is most meaningful to me.[2] Freedom allows me to work hard.

Empathizing with the challenges of being a student keeps leading me back to wanting to give them more and more of this same freedom, and put less and less stock in conformity and my own authority.

But boy, it’s a long journey that doesn’t seem to end.

Maybe that’s the best part.

Next time, some thoughts about the conditions when empathy breaks down.

[1] This is what made me easy to exploit as contingent labor. As long as I enjoyed the work, I was willing to overlook that fact that I was getting paid 25k a year to teach a 4/4 load.

[2] This extends to this blog space where IHE puts zero impositions on what I write about. That freedom leads them to get more writing out of me than they likely would otherwise. I wonder if I could extend this same idea to students inside of a college course someday.


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