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How to Educate with Empathy—Without Getting Worn Out

Educators explored 4 important topics during a multidisciplinary Course Hero Education Summit session led by biology professor Dr. Kimberly Lyle-Ippolito.

Educator

Kimberly Lyle-Ippolito, PhD

Professor of Biology, Anderson University, Anderson, IN

PhD in Molecular Genetics, MS in Molecular Genetics, BS in Biology

As a biology professor, Dr. Kimberly Lyle-Ippolito may have the mind of a scientist, but she has the heart of a science-fiction character known as an empath. “Empathy is both my gift and my curse,” she says. “I am crazy about my students. But they wear me out. I get compassion fatigue, and that is a problem.” This was one of the points of discussion during her session at Course Hero Education Summit ’19, which was all about making space for empathy in the college classroom. Below are four of the most compelling questions she posed to educators in attendance, along with their heartfelt responses.

Q: How do we avoid imposing our values on students?

A: Let them write the rules for class behavior

Some participants were reluctant to teach their own views of virtues, such as respect, because they are not universally defined. For example, one educator may insist on being called “Professor” or “Doctor,” while others who hold these titles prefer being on a first-name basis. Instead, it was suggested that educators spend 15 to 20 minutes at the start of the semester on “norm setting.” This involves asking the students what they think is important in the classroom (e.g., respect) and how they define it (e.g., listening, not interrupting, not belittling others). Once everyone has weighed in, the educator can distill the answers into one classroom code, post it, and allow students to photograph it so they can point to it if someone is out of line.

See resources shared by Kimberly Lyle-Ippolito, PhD

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Q: How can we “educate for empathy”?

A: Model an empathetic approach to failure

Elisa Affanato, MA, said one of her course requirements is perfect for this. Every student must give an oral presentation in her English class. Beforehand, she talks about how to be an empathetic audience member. “Not everybody’s going to do a great job,” she tells them. “But when somebody falters, rather than sitting and staring at them, why don’t you help them out?” To that end, she gives each student a copy of the script so they can feed the speaker a line if they get stuck.

Q: How can we show empathy toward students?

A: Let them know you “get” their struggles

Most of the students in Lyle-Ippolito’s genetics course are simultaneously enrolled in organic chemistry, often referred to as a “weeder class” or “the killer of dreams.” So, at the semester’s start, she announces that they simply need to tell her if she schedules a test on the same day as one in OChem, and she will gladly change the date. She tells them, “I’m more interested in you all doing well on my test and understanding the material than I am in killing you.”

Dr. Dan Ippolito added that a lot of the discomfort in academia has to do with the power dynamic between educators and students. “On the one hand, we hold power over students. On the other hand, students write our evaluations,” he said. “Something that we try to do, with mixed success, is to emphasize from day one, to the freshmen, that it’s not a matter of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ the way it often is in high school. We are a community of learners. We are the senior partners here—but we are partners.”

Q: How can we avoid “compassion fatigue”?

A: Focus on “helping” actions, not on results

As a nurse, Michelle Critchfield, PhD, RN, said she cannot be emotionally consumed every time a patient dies or takes a turn for the worse, or it would crush her. The same can be said of students who are struggling with problems ranging from bad to worse. Instead of focusing on what happens to them, she chooses to focus on what she was able to do in the time she is with them. “We have these humans for a small time,” she said. “And I look at it as an opportunity to help. If you took that opportunity and you were [as] prepared as you could be, and you did the best job that you could, then that’s all you have control over. You can’t make things better, necessarily, but you can be a human who’s a helper.”

Context

The activities and insights in this article were gleaned from the session “There, There: Making Space for Empathy in the Classroom,” presented by Dr. Kimberly Lyle-Ippolito on July 18, 2019, as part of the Education Summit’s Student Engagement track.

Editor’s note: To read more about the empathetic teaching approaches of Dr. Kimberly Lyle-Ippolito, check out the article “Infuse Biology Class with Gratitude, Humanity, and Civil Discourse,” which she produced with Course Hero earlier this year.

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