My Pedagogical Anchor – Empathy

Mary Beth Heeder


If I was asked to share words that come to mind when I hear COVID-19, I’d say: pandemic, crises, stress, worry, grief, sadness, change, upended, unpredictable, controlling, scary, tension, job loss, and tired. These words represent the unstable story that has unfolded since I responded to the documentarian survey prompts, which have inspired a memorable tale. 

Several months ago when introduced to this uncommon time, my husband did his best to adapt to being laid off, our college age children moved back home, I worried about my 87 year-old mom who has a lung disease, I missed teaching face-to-face, and I worried about keeping my job. 

As time went on, our house seemed to get smaller, food in the refrigerator had peoples’ names on it, and doors had signs on them, such as “Recording in progress. Please be quiet” and “When bathroom is being used 1) try other bathroom, 2) if not available, ask kindly if person using bathroom can quickly finish or step out for a moment….” Voices were raised as the college students said they hated living at home. My husband was still out of work and more irritable. I missed the magic that happens as I teach face-to-face, and I continued to worry about my mom and being furloughed or laid off. While sitting at my makeshift desk, with tears in my eyes, I wondered how much longer I could be the anchor for those whom I love and care about as they struggle while this virus continually reminds them that it is in control and will call the shots. My makeshift office is the place where I’d listen to the people with whom I was living as they vented about each other and various valid concerns; it is the place where I’d sit in Zoom meetings about budget shortfalls and the possibility of letting go of ‘perfunctory staff’; it is the place I’d try to comfort friends, colleagues, and students who had lost loved ones and jobs; it is the place where I’d read articles about this virus and think about losing my mom. 

As the virus made a statement about its ‘stickability’, one of my college-aged children tested the ‘stay-at-home’ waters. She asked what I thought about her moving in with a family friend who is like a second mom. My daughter was offered a job and could ride horses (her passion) while working on the farm. Not too long after this conversation, another college-aged child tested the waters. He was a little less gentle. He said he had to get out. He explained how important it is to him to live on his own, pay rent, purchase groceries, cook for himself, do his own laundry… and the list went on. A friend was leaving town and offered a sublease deal that was too good to pass up. “I am moving out tomorrow.” While I was sad that two of the children were moving out, I knew they’d be more happy living outside our house. I told them that I loved them with all my heart and said that I could imagine how hard it is moving back home after living on their own at college. I added that my husband and I are raising them to be independent, and we are proud of them.

Although I worry about my mom and my job each day and I miss the children who moved out, our house seems bigger and is more quiet, the food in the refrigerator is not labeled, and there are no longer “please be quiet” and “ask kindly…” signs being posted on doors. Life continues to happen, however. Within three hours, another one of our children, who was home for the summer after his first year of teaching high school students, was in a bicycle accident and the child who moved to the farm was seriously hurt when trying to load a horse onto a horse trailer. An MRI revealed that she would need surgery; the recovery process would be close to a year. As I fight fatigue and accompany my children to doctor appointments, feel their pain as I help them clean their wounds and watch doctors press on bruises, worry about my mom and my job, try to understand as my husband does his best to hang on to his purpose while laid off, listen to students who are struggling and stories of people who have lost their jobs, I realize that I need to better connect to a familiar anchor in order to teach through a pandemic. 

This tale is about my pedagogical anchor. 

Because this pandemic is so powerful and unpredictable, some might be surprised that my ‘go-to’ is empathy, which is often overlooked, misunderstood, and perceived as ‘soft’ and inconsequential. For close to 40 years I have seen the power of empathy inspire meaningful change in and out of the classroom. 

In the last year, I have learned more about the science of empathy from Dr. Helen Riess, MD, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). Dr. Riess developed an empathy-training approach based on the neurobiology and physiology of empathy that has changed parts of the culture of healthcare. I am convinced that Dr. Riess’s research on the science of the patient-doctor relationship and “the empathy effect” can inform the work educators do to leverage a teaching and learning environment that supports student success. I have cited some of Dr. Riess’s points about empathy and education in my story. I hope this tale inspires others to think about how empathy can guide them through this uncommon time.

I was introduced to the power of empathy several years ago when learning how to teach. I found myself in an urban elementary school first grade classroom with 25 underserved students.  When I arrived at the school, I noticed that during recess there were more students in detention than on the playground. Being a champion for the children and (as a young new teacher) believing that I could influence their behavior, I created a learning environment shaped by empathic pedagogy and practices. Recognizing the dynamic and powerful relationship between non-cognitive factors and school performance, two of my primary goals were to change the students’ beliefs about their ability to learn (from "I can't" to "I can"),  and to sincerely communicate to the students and their families that they were cared about and valued.  Within a short amount of time, there were more students on the playground than there were students in detention.

To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing when I started teaching. I did know, however, that I was moving in the right direction. Students enjoyed coming to school and doing their homework; they made good decisions because it was the right thing to do, not so they could get a piece of candy or have a class party (I never liked the candy jar behavior modification gimmick); they worked hard to meet high standards; parents and supporters were part of the learning experience as they helped students with homework and attended celebrations and productions. The students believed they could learn, and they enjoyed learning. 

It wasn’t until I began to learn about “the empathy effect” (Riess) that I understood why I was moving in the right direction during my rookie year of teaching and why I should hold on tight to my pedagogical anchor now. To take advantage of the opportunities presented by COVID-19 and a movement to address systemic racism and other injustices, empathy must move from the sideline to the front and center of our work, and faculty must practice self-care, which is often not easy for those who work in the helping professions. Although I know that teaching, especially during a pandemic, is exhausting and that I should take care of myself so I can teach and support my students, I struggle to practice self-care. As the mother of six I should know better. While I’d put the oxygen mask on myself before putting it on my children when flying in a plane, for some reason I prioritize the needs of others when it comes to my work. In fact, during this crisis my purpose and productivity have battled for dominance, and productivity has won more than it has lost. My thought has been that being productive will affirm my purpose. This has not been the case; the more I do to check things off a list, the more tired I become. I continue to work to balance productivity and purpose.

Dr. Riess explains that people resist practicing self-care because they mistake it for self-pity, view it as ‘soft’ or a way to escape being held accountable, or don’t believe they deserve it. Self-empathy, however, “is the acknowledgment that, like all human beings, you deserve understanding and compassion….even when you trip over your own feet and make mistakes that leave you feeling embarrassed or wishing you had stayed home” (Riess, The Empathy Effect 189). Through her research, Riess has found that empathy can be taught, and our empathic capacity can be increased. I was surprised to learn that when I practice self-care and become part of what Riess calls the ‘empathy loop’, I can develop the capacities necessary to meet my students’ needs. This knowledge is the nudge I need to take better care of myself and balance purpose and productivity. 

Last semester I felt the reality – the exhaustion - of teaching through a pandemic, which required extraordinary listening, patience, kindness, caring, trust, understanding, respect, generosity - empathy. Each semester, my students teach me lessons I use to develop my purpose and live a more meaningful life. Charlie’s story includes a message about the power of empathy.

Throughout my life I have always had a difficult time tapping into my true potential and intelligence because I have limited my ability as an instinctive way to avoid my worries and anxiety. I often did much worse in school at high stress or difficult transitional times. So when I entered a time like the beginning of a semester, I nervously hoped to myself that I was going to do it differently. Deep down, I always knew my mind wasn’t in the right place for me to do my best. Despite this, in the beginning of second semester this year when I started attending writing classes in Bessey Hall with Professor Heeder, my perspective on everything began to change…

… Many professors are mostly concerned with lecturing the material, while Professor Heeder’s main goal is to see that the students and I learn best. I decided that if I was going to take advantage of this great opportunity, I had to put all my energy and effort into fully immersing myself in the curriculum that Professor Heeder carefully laid out. I had to do it because I knew how much she cared about her students succeeding, and I couldn’t disappoint her. I decided I would show her my gift of writing and the intelligence that I knew I had always neglected. I’d shine my light by trying to do as best as I possibly could in the class. Too many times in the past I have disappointed myself and haven’t achieved what my teachers knew I could. This time I would show the professor everything I had to offer.

… Through her lessons I realized that for years I have been operating with a fixed mindset. For so long, I had told myself I wasn’t good enough and that school wasn’t for me…. I learned that when I faced a bump in the road I needed to confront it, find, and apply unique solutions rather than run away from the problems. Instead of telling myself I couldn’t do anything, I would figure out how I would do everything.

Even at the end of the semester I struggled with worries, and it has not always been easy to keep my mindset positive, but Professor Heeder’s lessons on positive thinking have become the light at the end of the tunnel and the foundation for my new, unique, and productive way of thinking. They have changed my perspective of my education; rather than going to school because it is expected of me, I realize going to school and learning is solely to improve myself. I will never forget the lessons Professor Heeder taught me, including to maintain the mindset she helped me discover, and I owe much of my success throughout the rest of my life to Professor Heeder for helping me unlock my true potential.

The ending of Charlie’s story could have been different if empathy was on the sideline or not present at all. Dr. Riess, who has rigorously tested the science of empathy and its impact on education and learning, helps me understand why (The Empathy Effect 95 – 111). 

  • instructors must be able to adopt the student’s perspective and be able to understand what is going on in another person’s brain while also understanding that their decisions, intentions, and beliefs may be different from their own in order to understand their students’ thoughts and intentions [the cognitive piece]
  • instructors must understand what students face every day and how they feel about what’s going on in their lives – before they enter their classrooms [the emotional side]
  • the amount of stress and anxiety students experience affects the architecture of their brains and, therefore, their ability to learn
  • negative memories stick like Velcro in the brain; from a neuroscientific point of view it makes more sense to offer affirmative, asset based, student-centered feedback
  • respectful treatment and encouragement stimulate the brain to produce dopamine and other neurochemicals associated with happiness and satisfaction—thus promoting optimal learning
  • when empathy is missing from teaching and learning and the whole student is not considered 

(whether students have food, a place to live, funds to cover education and living expenses, time and a safe space to study, etc.) we miss an opportunity to help them achieve their goals. 

I understand that I do not teach writing; I teach students – human beings. For this reason (and the fact that I, too, am human), teaching is complicated and difficult… but also very rewarding work. During this surreal period of history, I am reminded why connections and an ethic of care must be central to my work. Perhaps making empathy your pedagogical anchor will inspire your work and help guide you through this uncommon time.


Author's Reflection

Addendum June 2021

Recently my daughter Annie, the rising junior who spent the year rehabbing after the horse accident, and I presented at a virtual higher education teaching, learning, and student success conference. During  our session, Welcome Home… Or Not, we told our story about the abrupt return to home as a result of  the pandemic and the challenges and unexpected opportunities we have experienced. We decided that  making a space to think about what we might want to hang onto as we move out of an unforgettable  year might have some value. 

The story of preparing for this conference session, as much or more than one of our primary messages about grace and understanding, reminds me about the power of empathy.  

The preparation story begins with me texting Annie while she was studying for her finals and telling her  that I just noticed our proposal got accepted as a prerecorded session vs a workshop and that the 15  minute recording was due that day. To her credit, after she asked “How did you not know it was due  today?” she said she’d be home in the afternoon so we could record. When Annie arrived, she was  annoyed; she wanted to get the recording done fast. She had a few words written on a piece of paper. I  had a detailed script.  

Our first recording wasn’t horrible. Annie did a beautiful job. She is studying sports journalism and hopes  to be on TV one day; she is a natural on camera. This is not the case for me. Editing was necessary; ‘take  one’ was too long, and there were bloopers.  

Neither of us knew how to edit the recording. We got more frustrated as we tried to figure out what to  do. ANNIE: “Mom, there is no way this recording can be edited. Just send it in as it is.” 

After some time had passed, I thanked Annie for her patience with me, and she apologized for getting  frustrated; she offered to fix the recording. Although my tech skills are basic (an understatement), I was  determined to figure out how to edit the recording. My skimming and poor planning caused this  debacle. I could only imagine how disruptive my unexpected “need to video today” text was. 

ME: “OMG! I figured it out. We met our deadline! Thank you for setting us up for success with your  outline and for coming home to videotape when you had planned to study for finals. You are a rock star.  I am so proud of you. I love you with all my heart.” ANNIE: “Wooooo Hooooo!!! Who says college kids  can’t get things done at the last minute??? I’m happy to help, and I’m really happy we got it on the first  take. I love you and am so proud of you, too!!” 

THE POWER OF EMPATHY in and out of the classroom… timeless, foundational, and something we might  want to hang onto as we move out of this pandemic.


Works Cited:

Riess, Helen. The Empathy Effect: 7 Neuroscience-Based Keys for Transforming the Way We Live, Love, Work, and Connect Across Differences. Sounds True, 2018.

--- . “The Science of Empathy.” Journal of Patient Experience vol. 4, no. 2, 2017, pp. 74-77.