The Essential Teacher Trait That Has Emerged in the Pandemic

Written by: Elizabeth Heubeck
Published on: Jul 28, 2020



As the pandemic pushed all schooling online, candidates for teaching jobs naturally began to take inventory of their technology skills. But there’s another trait the COVID-19 crisis has illuminated that’s arguably as or more essential for teachers than tech savvy and virtual teaching prowess.

It’s empathy. 

“I want my students to complete their assignments, but there is more going on at home than I know about. The learning must continue, but it shouldn't come at the cost of the emotional well-being of the students,” said Jim Ryan, a teacher at Holy Spirit STEM Academy in Los Angeles. 

The pandemic brought teachers like Ryan even more visibility into pre-existing inequities among students—from technology access and parental support of home instruction to the ability and motivation to engage in their education without in-person peer and teacher interaction. The pandemic also has made educators recognize that being able to connect with students in an empathetic manner is in some cases as vital as ensuring they have a strong internet connection at home. 

The heart of social-emotional learning 
Empathy is at the heart of social-emotional learning, an approach that, when applied systematically, is intended to cultivate a caring and equitable learning environment that supports the development of essential skills such as responsible decisionmaking and emotional regulation. The recognition that teaching social-emotional skills is important and the practice of doing so in schools was gaining wider traction prior to the pandemic. In an exclusive survey by the EdWeek Research Center published in April 2020, 74% of teachers, principals, and district leaders who responded reported that their schools teach SEL; 43% of respondents agree that SEL is a “transformational way to improve public education”; and more than half of all respondents said their administration has taken specific steps toward implementing SEL. 

Making Caring Common is among several initiatives nationwide that support school districts’ efforts to implement SEL. A project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, it has partnered with more than 200 K-12 nationwide to train educators on how to develop empathy in students. And part of that work involves helping teachers broaden their own empathy.

The training involves getting educators to see and overcome their own biases toward certain students, explains Richard Weissbourd, a child and family psychologist on the faculty of Harvard's Graduate School of Education and director of the Make Caring Common project. Weissbourd observes that teachers naturally empathize with some students more readily than others. The training aims to get teachers to acknowledge this and to expand what he refers to as their “circle of concern.”

“There’s no question, based on research, that when teachers have strong relationships with students, they’ll have better academic outcomes,” Weissbourd said. Further, when teachers learn to recognize their own biases, they’re more likely to be able to teach students to do the same, he said.

How COVID-19 punctuated the need for teacher–student connectivity 
Indeed, reaping the benefits of SEL depends in large part on teachers’ ability to establish and maintain positive relationships with their students. It goes without saying that being in the same room with students offers enormous advantages toward realizing this goal.  

“I will never again take for granted the student showing up for class early to tell me about their weekend or the student sitting in the back of the room trying to stay under the radar because they are having a bad day. These relationships are the foundation of the classroom and just so challenging in the remote world,” said Liz Rusillo, a 9th grade science teacher at Smithfield High School in Smithfield, R.I.
How Rusillo and her colleagues will begin the 2020-21 school year will depend on directives provided by the governor of Rhode Island. But already, she’s concerned about the prospect of forming critical connections in a virtual learning environment with students she has never met. 
“I teach 9th grade. These kids are brand new to me. How do I form relationships with students I don't know?” she asked.
Administrators recruiting new teachers are pondering this question, too. 
“Part of what was important in our migration [to online learning] was the culture and the relationships that teachers have with students,” said Patricia F. Deklotz, superintendent of the Kettle Moraine School District in Wales, Wis. Going forward, Deklotz says that during interviews she will plan to ask teaching candidates their strategies for developing relationships with students through a virtual environment. 
Veteran educator Rachel Jorgensen has gotten creative to connect with students during the pandemic.
“I had to create an Instagram account; they weren’t meeting me on Google Classroom,” said Jorgensen, work coordinator at Anoka High School, in Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District. It’s one way that, during distance learning, Jorgensen has scrutinized her teaching methods through the lens of her students. 

Out of crisis, some positive change 
Eric Gordon knows all too well how a crisis can magnify the need for such scrutinizing. In 2007, in his second week as chief academic officer in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, a student who’d been suspended snuck into school, shooting and injuring before fatally wounding himself. 

“We have an obligation to make sure that no student ever feels that desperate again,”  said Gordon, who is now the district’s CEO. 

Immediately, the district took proactive steps. Some were “hardware” related, including installing metal detectors, cameras, and other security-related measures. But Cleveland also invested heavily in researching and implementing best practices around social-emotional learning. He refers to these efforts as the “humanware response,” which have included the introduction of SEL instruction in all schools, student-led anti-bullying teams, class advisories, and student advisory committees. The district has seen an overall reduction in suspensions and major improvements in disparities between how the amount of time Black students spent in out-of-school suspensions compared to white peers. 

As it did after the tragic incident in 2007, the Cleveland district is prioritizing the SEL needs of its students and families as it prepares to reopen schools. District staff members plan to meet individually at a safe social distance with each family of its 37,000-plus students to gauge their preparedness for the upcoming academic year on several fronts: access to technology and meals, a reliable school schedule, and safe places for students to be when not in school. 

Gordon says teaching candidates interested in joining a district that values SEL must look for it.
“You should be able to see evidence of it throughout the environment,” he said. This can come in the form of written policies, training initiatives, and curriculum. It should also be evident that students’ and families’ voices are highly prioritized, he notes. Of course, these voices must be heard in order to be prioritized. 

Some see the pandemic as an opportunity needed to make this happen. “The hope I have is that after this, we will become even more receptive as practitioners,” Jorgensen said. “We’ll engage in the reflection needed to be empathetic.”