George Lucas Educational Foundation
Online Learning

A Focus on Empathy in Distance Learning

Many students have a tough time learning at home, but teachers can create space to listen to their concerns and guide them to overcome obstacles.

June 9, 2020
Elementary school student participating in a video chat with her class
gorlovkv / Twenty20

As an educator, I have found the transition to online instruction to be filled with uncertainty, confusion, and self-doubt. There is no handbook offering clear information on how to fully move K–12 education online, and I have tackled the challenges as best I can. I can only imagine that these feelings must be more intense for my students.

Students don’t show up to our online classes wearing name tags that tell us the difficulties they’re facing during this pandemic. They also don’t have a sign on their forehead that tells us about their anxiety, their time-management difficulties, or their home-life situation. Now more than ever, we must exercise our most effective relationship-building strategies and flexible practices in accountability and grading to account for the unprecedented obstacles for students.

Many teachers already buy in to the importance of empathetic practice. We may accomplish this by listening to our students, which occurs naturally in a real-life classroom. During online learning, we need to create intentional avenues for students to share and listen carefully so that we can try to see their perspectives. We need to be empathetic practitioners, which means we listen to understand student situations.

In reflecting on empathetic practice during distance learning, three key considerations may help our students immensely.

Literacy Demands

As educators, we’re generally accustomed to constant communication through written language. We receive endless emails from various stakeholders, such as administrators, colleagues, and parents. It’s natural for us to quickly read emails and respond efficiently with expedience. We’re also able to read and process detailed information fluently, as we digest a bulk of written information on a daily basis. We live in a world saturated with reading and writing to the point that we take our own skills for granted.

During distance learning, there is a danger that teachers may assume that students share the ability to automatically read, interpret, and reply to textual information. This is not the case. Remote instruction is forcing students to read and process text at an unprecedented level. Students may lack the skills to comprehend our messages, and this impedes their growth and learning. This can also create frustration and overwhelm students.

What can we do as educators to combat this problem? Keep things simple! Remember that some students can’t read your emails and lengthy assignments due to their reading level. In addition, some students are intimidated or turned off by lengthy text. Here are some practical strategies to support students’ understanding without exceeding their literacy skills:

  • Keep all written communication as clear and concise as possible.
  • Provide video directions to accompany text as often as you can.
  • Offer face-to-face meetings (through applications such as Google Meet or Zoom) to offer verbal explanation and invite questions.
  • Limit email communication with students, particularly when they’re struggling. Reaching out verbally is paramount at this time.
  • Decrease quantity and increase quality. Be selective with the content you choose to deliver, and cut out superfluous information.
  • Proofread all written information to remove teacher jargon and ensure student-friendly language. Remember, our vocabularies are vast compared with those of most of our students.

Assuming Support

Families’ attitudes and beliefs about education have a huge impact right now, and we may assume that all parents feel that school is an important priority. This is not the case. Of course, we value school—we’re teachers. It’s a mistake to assume that all students have parents who are promoting school engagement.

Families who are not pushing their students to engage in the online learning environment should never be judged or perceived as wrong in any way. The global crisis has created a situation in which parents may be facing job loss, financial instability, uncertainty about the future, and unexpected medical concerns. Again, empathy is key, and this extends not only to students but to families as well.

Logistics related to online learning, such as consistent internet access, reliable devices, and quiet spaces for students to work, are also highly variable. An empathetic practitioner should assume that all families and students are doing the best they can with what they have in the current situation.

Rethinking Accountability

One of the most complex conversations we have faced as a teaching staff is the question of accountability during this time. None of our students chose the current situation, and none of them should be unjustly penalized for the challenges it presents. There has been great debate among teachers about the extent to which we balance generosity and high standards in our grading practices.

Every school situation is different and unique. Accountability in an online art class will look vastly different from accountability in online algebra. The name of the game now is empathy and flexibility in our grading decisions. We are offering a pseudo-school situation, and K–12 education has never been provided in this manner in such a ubiquitous way. We are all in uncharted waters as students, parents, and teachers.

Quite simply, this is not the time to tighten up our expectations, become upset about student participation, wallow in irritation with parents, or criticize our colleagues. We can balance relationships and accountability, extending graceful practices such as modifying assignments, adjusting expectations, and conducting alternative assessments based on each situation.

As educators, our top priorities at this time should include the goals of keeping connected with students and cultivating hope. We can best accomplish these by trying to place ourselves in our students’ shoes in all of our instructional decisions.

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George Lucas Educational Foundation