I was involved recently in an online discussion on empathy. One of the participants, who is a teacher like myself, argued that one need not understand another's circumstances only their emotions. It is this understanding of emotion, in his opinion, that is ultimately what defines empathy and what will eventually assist the teacher in reaching at-risk learners. While his raw words have an obvious appeal I couldn't help but wonder if the burden that this places on a teacher is too excessive.
Understanding emotions is complex at the best of times and is rarely dealt with in pedagogic literature. Yes, psychology and to some extent sociology broach on these themes but as a teacher I am not sure whether I am equipped to even enter such a realm which seems more the preserve of a social worker than anything else.
Yet in self-reflecting on this point, I started to wonder if I was not making excuses for my own shortcomings. Was I too afraid to venture into this area? Or when it comes down to it, have I limited my own sense of self?
Is this emotional aspect of empathy something we are born with or is it a learned action cultivated by internalized behaviourism? My belief is that it is somehow a mixture of both. There are some who have the potential to emotionally deliver 'more' (or at least what appears to be more) whilst others fall short of the mark. This quality of the former is certainly a valuable tool as so much of teaching is about the human element. Either way I believe that a portion of the skill can be learnt systematically. Maybe this is the route that I need to take.
I am however not sold on the idea that emotional understanding is the sole basis of empathy. I fear that a wholesale capitualtion to this philosophy will detract from the rationality of teaching so what I seek is a better understanding of what empathy truly is ie. its full conglomerate of aspects.
In practice I will continue to choose to extend my sense of self on a conscious level . I will teach with the expectation that my students need to understand. While I believe in the excitement of learning and the joy of transferred insight I will resist the temptation to drown myself in emotional based education. Based on experience this is the most reasonable pathway for me to take. It could change over time as I learn more about the 'Emotional Empathy Factor' but like any new adaptation to a philosophy is best implemented with thoughtful caution.