Jeremy Côté

Teaching is Empathy

The naïve person thinks that being good at teaching means you know the material. While this is technically true, I think it hides the fact that knowledge of the material isn’t sufficient to be a good teacher. For the most part, having a good command of the material helps a lot in getting the information to the students. However, I think we too often make the mistake that knowing the material is good enough. It isn’t.

As a tutor, I’ve learned this lesson over and over. I work with students who are working on mathematics at a much earlier level than I, which means I have a strong command of the material. While this might sound like a good thing, it also has the effect of making it difficult to connect with their difficulties. When the concepts are so obvious and organized in your head, it can be a challenge to break them down into digestible steps for students.

For example, if I’m working with a student who is learning about fractions, I can’t just tell them that division of fractions “flips” the second one. Sure, that is clear to me and it’s something they can reproduce, but it doesn’t give them a good understanding of what’s happening. Moreover, they might not even have a firm grasp of fractions themselves. A byproduct of tutoring at the younger level is that you start seeing exactly where the curriculum can fail students. You see what happens when recipes are made instead of developing a deeper understanding.

That’s not my concern here, though. What I am concerned about is how to be a good teacher to them. It’s not a matter of information. Like I said, I’m so used to these concepts that everything they are learning is something I know. The crux of the issue comes with transmitting the information to them. I need to find a way to get them engaged, or else they won’t be interested.

I’m also a student, so I’m very aware of what it means to have professors who only teach the material without any “extra” put in. These people do a fine job, but their teaching isn’t memorable.

So, what to do?

One piece of advice that has stuck with me is from mathematician John Baez (link). He says that teaching should be a “performance”. I think about this all the time now. When I’m working with a student and explaining a concept, am I just a talking textbook? If so, I don’t see the point in what I’m doing. However, if I can engage with the student in a way that is memorable and interesting, there’s a better chance they will remember what we do.

There are two aspects to this. First, I think we need to be engaged with our audience (students) a lot more. I’ve given presentations where I am speaking and there is no communication between the audience and myself. While I was able to deliver my information without a hitch, I can’t help but feel like I didn’t connect with the audience as much as I could have. In terms of teaching, I think this means we need to involve them more. When I’m working with a student, I ask them to provide me with answers and examples we can work through. This serves two purposes. It makes them feel like they are part of the experience, and it shows them that I’m not picking specific examples. The latter is very important to note. When learning a new concept, it isn’t always clear why a specific example is chosen. By inviting students to provide their input, it lets them see that the “game” isn’t rigged.

Second, we need to think about empathy a lot more. I may not know a lot about a specific mathematical concept, but if I can empathize with the student and their struggles, I believe a lot can be done to help them. This means you have to get to their “level”. If the student doesn’t feel like they are being understood, it can be a frustrating experience. I’ve seen it myself as a student. A classmate would ask a question, and the teacher just couldn’t understand their problem. The issue must have been clear to the teacher, so it didn’t even seem like a problem. After an awkward exchange, the student demurred, and the issue wasn’t resolved.

This was a lack of empathy between the teacher and the student. The teacher couldn’t bring themselves to think about the concept from the student’s perspective, and so they couldn’t help them. It’s unfortunate, and I’m acutely aware of this happening when I work with students.

My mission isn’t to be the most knowledgeable. Instead, it’s to care the most. When I first started working with students, I was always worried about not knowing enough to help them. Would I look like a fraud? Would I seem incompetent? Would they question why they were even paying me?

These questions never fully go away, but I’ve become a lot more accepting of my limitations. I’m not discounting the importance of knowing the material, but there is something to be said about being able to see like the student does. This kind of empathy is something we need to have in our teaching if we want to be more than a forgettable instructor.

Teaching is empathy. It’s not about the material. It’s about people. If you go into teaching with the wrong mindset, it’s no surprise that people won’t connect with you.