I’ll never forget the instructor who gave me a generous week-long extension so I could travel home for a funeral with significantly less stress. I’ll never forget the professor who heard me saying, “I want to go to grad school, but I don’t think I can afford it;” and invited me to their office to talk through every aspect of grad school from applications and finding sources of funding to budgeting for conferences. I’ll never forget the professor who assured me that imposter syndrome was real (finally! I had a name for what I was feeling!).
I’ve had so many excellent teachers, and they’ve all had one thing in common: each one centered empathy in their practice. In their classes, I felt empowered, challenged, and encouraged. I knew that they valued me and my experiences because they empathized with me. And because of their empathy, I knew that all of me was welcome in their classroom (even the inconvenient parts of me—like having to miss class because, well, we don’t live in a vacuum and life happens even to grad students).
Born out of these experiences as a learner, my own teaching philosophy is centered on the belief that empathy is the heart of good teaching. To truly respect the diverse experiences that students bring to the classroom, an instructor must be empathetic in their approach to all aspects of teaching—from lesson planning to discussion.
These reflections on the centrality of empathy to teaching led me to research learner and student-centered pedagogies. My favorite definition of learner-centered practice comes from the book Learner-Centered Pedagogy: Principles and Practice. In this book, Klipfel and Cook (2017) define learner-centered pedagogy as “a way of thinking about education that centrally locates the learner as an individual with unique interests and concerns, which asks teachers to continually ask the empathic question, What is it like to be a person learning something?” (p. 8). That simple question, “What is it like to be a person learning something?” is an inherently empathetic question. It’s a question that invites us to step into the shoes of the learners we are trying to reach.
Put into practice, empathy-centered teaching can take many forms, but it always values and respects the diverse experiences of students. For librarians in the undergraduate classroom, this may look like involving students in the creation of the lesson agenda; creating assignments that invite students to connect their own interests and experiences to class concepts; encouraging students to submit assignments in a medium that excites and motivates them; and making space and time for authentic discussion and questioning. All of this is connected to the central concept that students are not blank slates, but humans with a lifetime of rich experiences and knowledge to share.
I’m so grateful to have learned from so many excellent teachers who have invited me to take responsibility for my own learning and viewed themselves as contributors to the learning process. I’m thankful for all the authentically messy moments that taught me just how complex learning is—and that I could embrace imperfection and speak out even if I didn’t have all the answers. As I fine-tune my own teaching philosophy, I hope to continually create an environment where students feel welcome to be their authentic and whole selves and to view every aspect of teaching through the lens of empathy.
Klipfel, K. M., & Cook, D. B. (2017). Learner-centered pedagogy: Principles and practice. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions.
Katelyn Sabelko is an MA student in the iSchool at UW-Madison graduating in August of 2020. She currently works at Edgewood College in the Oscar Rennebohm Library. She keeps busy as cochair of the WLA Student Interest Group at UW-Madison (you can see her present at the upcoming WAAL conference in April 2020!). Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter.