Leading with Empathy in Schools


One of the things I encourage teachers to do when they consider the impact of their actions on student learning is to look at themselves through the eyes of the student. This can make all the difference in changing practice and improving learning outcomes for students. In many ways, it is part of a shift from a teacher-centered approach to learning towards a more student-centered approach.

As educational leaders, I question whether we do the same with many of our decisions that impact on teachers and the expectations that we have of them. In our role as school leaders in many shapes and forms, I assume we strive for the same goal in our schools – to create the best educational experience possible.

In fact, many educational and governmental bodies that schools are held accountable to are also trying to do the same thing. At times, it may not look like it, as we disagree with certain initiatives and become frustrated with many idealistic views of education, right or wrong, that we feel are simply unattainable with the resources that we have our disposal.

We have our ideals too, as leaders in our schools. We have a romantic vision for what our school should look like if it were to function perfectly. This vision most likely includes teachers that are at the very top of their game, passionate about education and constantly engaging and challenging students to learn. The students reciprocate the teachers’ efforts and love school; they see its relevance and have a joy of learning that makes them want to come to school each day.

Achieving that vision is hard work. To be truthful, we may never get there and our work will never be complete, as there is always something else to improve. Probably, lots of things to still improve. Yet we still try but we get upset along the way when those we lead are not meeting our expectations; some teachers may not be getting to where we want them to be.

I have often wondered, while we can always guide teachers in how to be better, perhaps we are not doing enough to create the conditions for them to be successful?

Of great concern to me is that, as leaders, we can so often forget what it is like to be the teacher on the full teaching load. We may remember it fondly, that feeling of being fresh out of College and in our first teaching job, enthusiastic and committing ourselves to everything that we could to support students. Though, we may forget that we may not have had a family then or the conditions in our schools were very different. We may think that it was easy to ‘just’ be a teacher and this guides us in the decisions we make that get passed down to teachers.

Much frustration exists in many schools from teachers that feel that education administrators “do not know what it is like…they do not understand.” It is these words that need to guide us when we think about new initiatives in our schools, changes that we wish to make and expectations that we want to set. Are we giving our teachers every chance to be as good as we want them to be?

We need to look at improving our schools a little more through the eyes of our teachers, become more connected with the reality of what we are asking them to do and then put in place the proper support rather than simply expect change and improvement.

Granted, there are varying levels of motivation among teaching faculty and some are more frustrating to work with than others. School improvement does cut both ways, it is a partnership and leaders in schools do, at times, need better support from their staff than they may be getting. That said, we chose to lead and must do so with an emotional maturity that begins with looking at our own actions when our expectations are not being met and our utopian vision for education is not being realized. That is real leadership.

Originally posted on the Ed Leader blog

Connect with me @richard_bruford


  1. T Wilcox said:

    I have a few thoughts about the post Leading with Empathy in Schools. Certainly, we talk about caring school cultures as favorable conditions for learning. Much of the talk concerns the relationships between teachers and students or among students. But when you work in schools for a long time, you quickly become aware of other relationships that seriously impact school climate: relationships among teachers and relationships between teachers and their supervisors. In my experience, teachers sometimes find themselves navigating challenges in their professional relationships with school administrators. How can we cultivate relationships of trust between teachers and admin? Here are some of the conditions that take teachers’ minds away from student learning, weakening the likelihood that they are able to give their best to the students they teach.

    1. Please do not make it obvious if you prefer some staff to others. Seeing the same few staff members chatting comfortably with the principal suggests the playing field is not level. Make sure your ear is available to everyone equally. If you honor one staff member publicly, work to make sure the others get similar treatment.

    2. Don’t accommodate those who vocalize louder and longer to a greater degree. This could be seen in timetabling, teaching assignments, preferred classroom locations, and in other areas up for negotiation. When decisions are made, there should be a rationale for how it best supports students. That’s what ALL teachers can agree with. If you find yourself relying on a few staff members for information, seek for balance by speaking with others.

    3. Make sure teachers see you often: in their class, at the doors for entry and exit, in the lunchroom, at the bus, on the playground, in the hall, during special events, and on field trips. If they trust that you know and understand their work, it will go a long way in building a positive relationship. They will better trust your judgment because they will know the source of information is what you have actually seen and experienced, not just what you have heard from another staff member.

    4. Sometimes a principal addresses the whole staff about the inappropriate actions of a few. Like bringing up an over-extended budget for substitute teachers when only a few teachers have multiple or prolonged absences. Or sending an email about tardiness for recess supervision, when one or two are chronic offenders. Please don’t ask those of us who are fulfilling our responsibilities to be accountable for those who are not.

    5. Each administrator has some nuanced preferences (some based on actual board policy, some not so much) about the writing of report cards. What we would like is if you asked us to write one, gave us the feedback and then allowed us to use it as a guide to write the rest. What typically happens is that a class set of reports is written before any feedback is provided. You expect feedback cycles in our work with students, so notice where it can save work and frustration for teachers and they will appreciate you for it.

    6. We recognize that adults have different learning needs than our young students. However, too often school based professional learning can include the dissemination of too much information in a lecture type format. If you are asking your staff to plan and carry out active, effortful tasks rich in formative assessment, please try to use similar strategies with staff.

    7. Although we want the information that is relevant to our work, we also want the ability to respond to it in a timely, well thought out, professional way. Please support the staff in selecting together the initiatives that provide the most value for students and give them the time and attention they deserve. Be careful bringing up new initiatives during this learning cycle.

    8. Use committees to gather information, identify possible directions and make recommendations. Bringing up items for discussion with the whole group can get sidetracked quickly and consume precious time. Honor people’s time by determining meeting times and sticking to them.

    9. Ask staff sincerely for their feedback on your own work, and let them know what you are doing to hear their concerns and take action. Be approachable, honest, kind, direct, and cautiously optimistic in your interactions with staff.

    10. Communicate to staff your understanding of the importance of the physical environment and your effort to optimize it. If the building is clean, in good repair, has maintained shared storage spaces, an appealing staff area, and outdoor grounds, the well-being of students and staff is recognized as important. The opposite is also true.

    11. If you make an appointment to observe a teacher in class, keep it. If you absolutely can’t make it, contact them to let them know. If a staff member shares something with you via email, acknowledge it with a reply. If you are new to the building, honor the work that has taken place. Have fun staff celebrations and functions; they go a long way for unity and morale.

    Imperfect people with real human emotion teach in schools and run schools. The intent of this list is not to criticize but to bring awareness, and hopefully to help. I want both teachers and principals to work on their professional relationships, which impacts the overall climate of the school and ultimately teachers’ ability to bring their best game for students every day.

    March 20, 2016
    • Thank you for reading the contributing to the topic of this post. Some of the points that you raised, I have acknowledged in other posts.

      I would like to use some of your points in further posts that I am writing but before doing so, I would like to seek your permission and to be able to credit you accordingly.

      One point about feedback to school administrators. A real challenge that is faced is when teachers do not genuinely give you open and honest feedback. You can work so hard to build a culture of trust, the quality of feedback can still be a real issue in trying to help school leaders understand the problems that need addressing.

      March 21, 2016

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