The Role of Empathy in Teaching Culturally Diverse Students: A Qualitative Study of Teachers' Beliefs. (2000 AACTE Outstanding Dissertation Award Winner)

By McAllister, Gretchen; Irvine, Jacqueline Jordan | Journal of Teacher Education, November-December 2002 | Go to article overview

The Role of Empathy in Teaching Culturally Diverse Students: A Qualitative Study of Teachers' Beliefs. (2000 AACTE Outstanding Dissertation Award Winner)


McAllister, Gretchen, Irvine, Jacqueline Jordan, Journal of Teacher Education


An empathic disposition has been seen as a desirable trait for teachers in diverse settings. This disposition has been associated with increased sensitivity to different cultures (Germain, 1998) and has been identified as a key characteristic in being effective in urban diverse schools (Darling-Hammond, 2000; Gordon, 1999). Specifically, empathetic people take on the perspective of another culture and respond to another individual from that person's perspective (Goleman, 1998; Oliner & Oliner, 1995). Noddings (1984) referred to this as "feeling with," wherein one does not feel for or act on behalf of an individual; rather, one is with the individual in a nonjudgmental fashion. This type of empathy has also been referred to as "altruism," which implies action on behalf or in service to other's needs (Goodman, 2000).

This empathic disposition often manifests itself in teachers' caring relationships with students. Researchers have noted that students, especially students of color, who have caring relationships with their teachers are more motivated and perform better academically than students who do not (Foster, 1995; Gay, 2000; Irvine, 1990). In addition, empathy can potentially foster openness, attentiveness, and positive relationships. In culturally diverse classrooms, being open and flexible helps teachers adjust to varying contexts (Delpit, 1995). Teachers are better able to modify pedagogy and curricula to fit their students' needs, such as the teacher who changed a classroom ritual to be more comfortable for her Vietnamese students by simply offering her students multiple ways to say goodbye rather than obliging them to hug her before they left the classroom.

Researchers who have explored teachers who are effective with diverse students (e.g., Ladson-Billings, 1994) or in urban settings (e.g., Gordon, 1999) have identified empathy as a component of teachers' success but have not focused on it directly. This article provides an opportunity to illuminate the role of empathy, through the voices of 34 educators, in the teaching of culturally diverse students. Teachers' comments will be shared in light of the professional development course in which they all participated. The goal of this course was to foster culturally responsive practice.

Though empathy and its associated behaviors are emphasized as important by teachers in this research, as well as by researchers (e.g., Darling-Hammond, 2000; Gordon, 1999; Noddings, 1984), some have questioned the role of empathy in working with culturally diverse students. For example, Rosenberg (1998) found that her White preservice teachers' empathy provided a "false sense of involvement" that could be dangerous if they assume they know and understand their students although they may actually have a superficial understanding (p. 9). Such a "false sense of involvement" may also lead to the "paradox of appropriation," in which a person equates his or her own experiences with the other person's, essentially erasing the distinctions between her or his own and the other person's experience (Spelman, 1995). Another critique concerns the emotional connection that empathy implies. A singular focus on the effective dimension of teachers' relationships with their students of color may obscure the need to address broader, far-reaching institutional issues such as racism, unequal school resources, and discriminatory policies and procedures like tracking and discipline. Caution needs to be taken when emphasizing the importance of empathy, because empathy is a necessary, but not a sufficient, requirement for becoming a culturally responsive teacher or even an effective teacher with diverse populations. Technical competence and subject matter knowledge are also important (Kennedy, 1991). Though one must be aware of this tension, teacher education and professional development programs must not be steered away from fostering an empathetic attitude. …

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