Empathy, teaching dispositions, social justice and teacher education

July, 2019

Source: Teachers and Teaching, 25:5, 507-522

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

This article explores some of the complexity of empathy, which is widely understood to be a desirable teacher disposition that is sometimes included under the general category of ‘caring’, along with compassion and kindness (Bair, 2017, p. 227; Sockett, 2009, p. 299).
A central reason for focusing on empathy is that extraordinary claims have been made for its redemptive powers, including as a key educational resource for achieving social justice aims, and the strong expectation among many teacher educators that empathy ought to be taught and increased.
Among educators, the goodness and value of empathy is taken-for-granted, one good among the many that teacher education ought to encourage.
But, as has been shown here, there is much debate and lively discussion about just what empathy is, what it does, what it cannot do and whether or not it potentially has harmful side effects related to distress or even represents a cover for moral blindness.
As a form of fellow-feeling, empathy expresses the human species’ concern for one’s in-group and its comfort and survival.
To stretch a capacity (low-level empathy) that appears to enable what is believed to be a relatively easy bonding with those who we take as like us to others who are assumed to be in some respects quite different points toward the need for rethinking empathy, most especially as effortful learning, top-down, cognitive and intentional and as hard and sometimes personally painful work.
Only by such efforts can what goes as unsaid, the biases and prejudices hiding in low level empathy, be revealed and their moral mischief be exposed then criticized.
As the author has tried to show, empathy is not only a complex and perplexing concept, but in its bottom up, reactive, form it is also a source of deeply disturbing beliefs and undoubtedly some unjust actions.
For educators who find in empathy a vibrant disposition to be cultivated, the argument is that more careful and critical thought is necessary to turn the concept into something approaching a point of action that actually leads somewhere promising.
But then, one must ask: What is gained by elevating empathy to the honorific status of a teacher education disposition to be taught and somehow measured, especially when measuring is usually a matter of self-report? Are the claims made for empathy reasonable, justifiable, and realizable?
As debate continues over what a disposition is and what dispositions (if any) should find place within teacher education, it is important to recall what schools are for and what it is teachers are expected to do (and be) within them.
Sockett’s (2009) argument that dispositions are best thought of as virtues to be developed is an important reminder that at the center of teacher quality is who the teacher is and the sort of teacher and human being she aspires to become.
Within the past few years a substantial literature has arisen addressing the value and importance of appreciative and engaged listening–and not just speaking–for the health of democratic institutions and of citizenship (see Bullough & Rosenberg, 2018; Dobson, 2014).
Although in much of the neoliberal world discussion of citizenship as an educational aim has generally been displaced by vocational ambitions, some vision of the most desirable forms of social living is inevitably embedded in every and all programs and schools.
As an educational aim, citizenship raises the fundamental question of how do we and how should we live together?, a question that the concern for social justice rightly presses.
Within teacher education this question underpins the desire to strengthen multicultural understandings and commitments.
It is here where the literature on listening has importance.
Recall Hodges et al. (2015) conclusion about empathetic accuracy, that ‘instead of attempting mind reading [the most] highly effective way to find out what another person is thinking [and feeling] is to ask that person’ (p. 340).
Among the promising and desirable dispositions for teacher education is what Dobson (2014) describes as ‘apophatic listening’ (p. 64), a deep, compassionate, form of listening, of carefully attending to another person, that indicates a strong desire for ‘attunement’.
To listen apophatically is a virtue that like all virtues includes skills and knowledge dimensions:
It requires self-regulation and is effortful, but can be learned and can with help be improved upon.
The point, as Rodriguez et al. (2018) argue, is that teachers must hear and understand children’s stories if they are to develop the ‘sociopolitical awareness’ (p. 11) required to respond helpfully, hopefully, and appropriately to their life situations.
To think of teachers as needing to develop greater empathy as the solution to social inequalities and for inability to connect meaningfully and compassionately with children and their parents is within the reach of preservice teacher education is likely a nonstarter, only a promise of failure.
In contrast, to think of the problem as one of learning to listen and learn (and then thoughtfully and skillfully act) seems much more promising.

Bair, M. A. (2017). Identifying dispositions that matter: Reaching for consensus using aDelphi study. The Teacher Educator, 52(3), 222–234
Bullough, R. V., Jr., & Rosenberg, J. R. (2018). Schooling, democracy, and the quest for wisdom: Partnerships and the moral dimensions of teaching. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Dobson, A. (2014). Listening for democracy: Recognition, representation, reconciliation. New York: Oxford University Press.
Hodges, S. D., Lewis, K. L., & Ickes, W. (2015). The matter of other minds: Empathic accuracy and the factors that influence it. In M. Mikulincer & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), APA handbook of personality and social psychology: Vol. 3. Interpersonal relations (pp. 319–348). Washington, D. C.: The American Psychological Association.
Rodriguez, S., Monreal, T., & Howard, J. (2018). “It’s about hearing and understanding their stories”: Teacher empathy and socio-political awareness toward newcomer undocumented students in the New Latino Sough. Journal of Latinos and Education. doi:10.1080/ 15348431.2018.1489812
Sockett, H. (2009). Dispositions as virtues: The complexity of the construct. Journal of Teacher Education, 60(3), 291–303. 

Updated: Aug. 20, 2020


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