So what is "math empathy"? Well it is not a term that I have ever really heard used. I am not claiming at all to be the originator of this term, however, I have not encountered many math educators who incorporate this term as part of their daily pedagogical lexicon even though it may very well be a part of their pedagogical belief system. So before I start talking about, perhaps I should first define it (at least from my perspective)
Math empathy is simply being able to put yourself in the shoes of the student who is trying to understand the mathematical concepts being taught. As simple as this sounds as a concept, it is quite difficult for many teachers to do. I have definitely struggled with this in the past because I confused "doing an exciting activity for my students" or "making the lessons easier for my students to understand" as synonymous with "showing math empathy to my students." It turns out that empathy is an emotional skill that is developed over time and it actually begins before the lessons are planned and the activities are prepared. Thinking like a teenager (or even another adult) can be a quite challenging task, especially when each person's upbringing, interests, goals, habits, thought processes, and abilities are so different from yours. However, the most impactful and effective teachers are the ones that are able to see things from the perspective of the other person. The most profound discovery I have made about the effectiveness of my teaching is that it is correlated to my willingness to develop as person. In order for me to show more empathy to my students, I realized that I had to become the person that shows more empathy in general. With that said, I discovered some strategies that helped me to become more empathetic so that I can show the math empathy that my students needed from me.
1. Be Open. In order to understand how someone else experiences the math that you teach, it is important to be open to the fact that each student will potentially experience it a different way. Some students have math anxiety or an over-inflated idea of their math competence or perhaps truly don't see the point; while others take for granted that because concepts are seemingly easy for them to understand and feel that they don't necessarily need to waste their time. In any event, if you are only looking at math through one lens, it is easy to unconsciously ignore how these concepts "occur" to the very same students they were meant to enhance.
2. Be Present. You have to be fully aware and engaged in every interaction with your students to learn who they are. How can one effectively teach without being able to connect with the individuals being taught? You will not be able to connect with every one of your students, but you would be surprised to know just how many more students you are able to connect with just because you made an attempt. Sometimes that is all it takes. Being present is also important while you are teaching. Being able to read the mood and the interest level of the class and being responsive is very important. Perhaps the class needs a water break or to get up and stretch. I know I have had a few times where I literally took my class on a short 10-minute field trip around the school so that they can get a break from the heavy concepts I was teaching. Perhaps students also need things presented to them and/or explained to them a different way in order to connect with the information. If you only know of one way (or stuck on one way) of doing things, you will not be able to effectively communicate math to your students. Being present involves a willingness to completely abandon what you are doing and go back to the drawing board as the needs change. But being present also involves being aware of those needs as they occur. This is a skill that definitely comes with practice.
3. Learn to Listen. Sometimes your students actually know what is best when it comes to how they should be taught. Many students are self-aware enough to know how they learn. Create an environment as well as a relationship in which they feel comfortable respectfully giving you their opinions. Sometimes you will have to ask them what they think--perhaps verbally or by using a written survey. You will not be able to empathize with your students if you don't have some awareness of what and how they think. Listening will be a natural consequence of your openness and willingness to be present.
4. Practice Being Non-Judgmental. Don't be quick to judge your students just because they don't readily understand the concepts that you teach. It is easy to write them off as lazy, uninterested, mentally inept, not possessing a "math mind" and then teach to only those who so called "want to learn." Your students will come to your class with an array of math experiences that are both pleasant and unpleasant. At some point in their experiences, they formed habits and a mindset that either works for them or against them. In either case, be sensitive to the fact that they can't help that their point of view informs how they "take to" your lessons. Always have this question in the back of your mind: "What mindset do I need to possess to help them change their mindset?" Perhaps you will need to model what you would like to see.
5. Use Your Imagination. You will never truly be able to fully experience something from your student's point of view. However, with the information that you have gathered with your newfound skills of awareness, you will be able to imagine how they would respond to the concepts being taught. Put yourself in the shoes of specific students. How would Johnny see the Pythagorean Theorem? What would Betty think about having to factor quadratic trinomials? Imagine what your students would think about the lessons that you plan. If you come to the conclusion they are going to sit unresponsively, then perhaps that lesson needs to go back to drawing board. As I said before, be willing to start over. Also, don't be hard on yourself if what you imagined turns out to be the complete opposite when you execute. Once again, your ability to be present and adjust will come in handy in challenging moments.
6. Learn How to Communicate Empathy. No I am not talking about explaining to your students why you do everything the way you do and telling them how grateful they should be for a teacher like you. I am talking about using the language of empathy. I find that using accountable talk also works. "I really want to help you to understand this material but I that there are some challenges with that. Is there any else that I can do to help you to overcome these challenges?" It could just be as simple as asking a student "Are you ok today?" I find that when I have that type of consistent communication with my students, they will automatically just volunteer that they are having a bad day or that something challenging is occurring in their personal life as an explanation to why they may have come across as disinterested in the lesson. When it comes to a specific math concept, math empathy is shown when you show concern for their inability to understand or connect with it. Having a positive solution-oriented mindset goes a long way when dealing with those students. I have found that my concern for their lack of understanding sometimes motivates them to try a little harder and utilize more available resources so that they can be successful. How you communicate empathy will oftentimes be the difference in how your students perform in your class and your effectiveness as a teacher.
Horace Buddoo is an educator, educational consultant, master teacher, speaker, TEDx curator, managing editor of EDUTAKE and the host of the EDUTAKE podcast.