Notes from the Trenches

Teaching with Empathy Beyond a Pandemic

Librarianship, at its heart, is a service profession. All librarians and library staff strive to serve our patrons with compassion and empathy, regardless of our areas of expertise or work responsibilities. During times of crisis, it is especially important to focus on connecting with our students as human beings first and foremost. It’s the perfect time to refresh our commitment to teaching with empathy and compassion.

At the beginning of April, Melissa Wong, an adjunct instructor for the iSchool at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, went viral with a series of tweets regarding a student who had contracted COVID-19. The student was concerned about completing an assignment, one for which she had already been granted an extension. Wong has been teaching online for twenty years. This was her response:

“I am so sorry you are sick. Please do not worry about missing the due date. IT IS FINE. I am not worried and there will not be a late penalty. We can chat about the course when you are healthy again.

More importantly: 1. Do you live with an adult who can care for you (and any children)? 2. Do you have enough food & essential supplies? 3. Since your caregiver (if you have one), will be quarantined for at least 14 days, do you have a way to get more food?”

IT IS FINE. How different would our classrooms look and feel if we always incorporated this “human first” approach? When I am teaching or interacting with students (or faculty), I try my hardest to embody empathy. Do I always succeed? Of course not. But, when a student is sleeping during an instruction session, we should not see it as a form of disrespect or an insult to our teaching. When we’re helping a student at the reference desk and the assignment is due tomorrow, don’t label that student as a lazy procrastinator. When a faculty member’s question on chat feels more like a demand, strive to be as quick (and kind) as possible. The student sleeping in class could have stayed up all night studying for a test or taking care of a sick family member. The procrastinator may have had an extensive workload in their other classes. The faculty member could be under pressure to complete a deadline.

None of these things may be true but we can choose to view the students and faculty we help as human beings with all the messiness that can entail. I have been short with colleagues or those attempting to help me when on a deadline. I have (definitely) procrastinated on assignments or projects. I hope those people choose to see my inevitable shortcomings not as a judgement of my character or professionalism but as my innate “humanness”. Strive to incorporate empathy and compassion into our teaching always, not only during times of crisis. It will only help our students succeed.

Suggested Readings

Chang, A. F., Berger, S. E., & Chang, B. (1981). The relationship of student self-esteem and teacher empathy to classroom learning. Psychology: A Journal of Human Behavior, 18(4), 21–25.

Coffman, S. L. (1981). Empathy as a Relevant Instructor Variable in the Experiential Classroom. Group & Organization Studies, 6 (1), 114-120. doi:10.1177/105960118100600111.

Etches, A., & Phetteplace, E. (2013). Know Thy Users: User Research Techniques to Build Empathy and Improve Decision-Making. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 53(1), 13-17.

Franzese, Paula A. (2017). The Power of Empathy in the Classroom. Seton Hall Law Review, 47, 693.

Supiano, Beckie (2020). ‘Don’t Worry About the Class’: How One Professor Responded to a Student with Covid-19 Symptoms. The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 9, 2020.

Wheeler, R. (2016). On Empathy. Law Library Journal, 108(3), 489–498

–Laura Sheets, ALAO Secretary, Bowling Green State University

This entry was posted in Vol. 40 no. 2 (June 2020) and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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