Lead with Empathy, Teach with Anti-Bias

Teaching High School Students in a Classroom During COVID-19


by: Scotland Nash

August 26, 2020

Now more than ever, we need to build the capacity for empathy and compassion with our students and school communities.  

The health crisis of COVID-19 highlighted again the racial disparities across the country. The racial violence embodied in the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and George Floyd re-ignited our understanding of the systemic racism that plagues our nation.  We can’t deny the staggering statistics that point to inequities from the impact of COVID,  images that illustrate continued violence by the police, and a corresponding  significant momentum around the Black Lives Matter movement. While schools will conduct learning in different ways, all educators will need to consider how to start the year differently than in the past.  School communities will need to address the layered impact from the loss of learning, loss of relationships, and loss of life for some as well as persistent evidence of systemic racism. They will need to do so while managing the complexity of new teaching and learning methods.

Whether the school year begins virtually, in-person or as a blend of the two, we know it is especially important to prioritize respectful and equitable school climates.  An equitable school climate is characterized by psychological and physical safety. It is an environment where students feel comfortable expressing themselves, asking questions and taking risks, and educators raise innovative ideas or try new techniques. There are ways for educators to adapt and build an equitable school climate in a virtual world. That means practicing collaborative decision-making to ensure students’ and teachers’ voices are heard, building connections within the community, analyzing the systemic ways in which injustice manifests, delivering excellent academic instruction and supporting the well-being of students and every member of the school community.  This is also a moment when we need to focus on empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand the thoughts, feelings and perspectives of others.  Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston, author and podcast host, explains that empathy is cultivated by courage, compassion and connection.  She says that expressing empathy or being empathic is not easy. It requires us to be able to see the world as others see it, to be non-judgmental, to understand another person’s feelings and to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings (Wiseman, 1996).  Therefore, it is essential that students have time and space in school to understand themselves and at the same time, build empathy for others, including those who identify in different ways. One example is to read and discuss books that feature people from diverse backgrounds and that unpack current issues of bias and discrimination. 

A powerful way to support educators in fostering a climate that teaches, inspires and promotes empathy is through anti-bias education. Anti-Bias education involves exploring our own identity and the identity of others within a diverse society. It helps students learn to recognize and be proud of who they are in their multiple identities. Anti-bias education also involves the examination of bias and encourages people to challenge injustice. (Derman-Sparks & Edwards 2010). It provides opportunities for students, educators and families to learn from and about one another while exploring ways to address bias through awareness, personal action and activism.

Effective anti-bias education expands our understanding and respect for the range of human differences. It incorporates culturally responsive curriculum that reflect a diversity of identities, perspectives, and experiences, teaching methods that advance all students’ learning and strategies for creating and sustaining safe, inclusive and respectful learning communities. Specifically, educators can:

  • Check their assumptions, learn what connection looks like across differences and be vulnerable and “authentic” with students, as Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, suggests
  • Introduce anti-bias education that brings teachers and students together to examine where bias begins and learn ways to recognize and challenge bias in themselves, others and society.
  • Create opportunities to genuinely tap into issues of justice and equity, model vulnerability and empathy and support their students in understanding the range of human conditions and emotions. 

It is critical for our nation and education system to provide students with the space to explore and develop empathy. Meaningful anti-bias education can create a natural space for students to be guided in how to develop empathy inside and outside the classroom, foster positive relationships and create an environment that is welcoming to all members of the community. To meet the challenge of navigating the current environment in which inequity and injustice are prevalent, educators need to lead with empathy and create an anti-bias environment.