Designing Empathy-Based Professional Development That Teachers Will Use

Professional Development

Designing Empathy-Based Professional Development That Teachers Will Use

from Participate

By Mark Otter     Aug 12, 2019

Designing Empathy-Based Professional Development That Teachers Will Use

Em·pa·thy /ˈempəTHē/ noun. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Empathy (Source: Participate)

While there has been an increase in training around social-emotional learning (SEL) in K-12 classrooms, many professional development (PD) resources for educators treat SEL as a standalone subject rather than a foundational component of learning environments.

In adult life, empathy, compassion and the identification and management of emotions are integrated into everything we do. In education, empathy and compassion are paramount to student-centered learning environments and instructional design because they encourage educators to question their own assumptions while considering and supporting the demonstrated needs of students.

Truly incorporating SEL into classroom instruction is challenging—for both educators and students—because it demands continuous reflection and examination of everyday interactions and inclinations.

Participate, a social learning platform, and Empatico, a free tool for classroom virtual exchange, noted a lack of SEL-related PD opportunities for educators. In response, the two organizations designed the Empathy Project Fellowship, a time-bound learning experience that engages cohorts of educators in PD designed to build empathy in their classrooms. Time-bound learning experiences are bursts of learning that provide blended or online opportunities to collaborate around a topic of interest. In this case, learners collaborated online for three months around virtual exchange.

Here’s how they applied basic learning principles to their experience (and how you can too):

Start by asking what teachers need.

We learn best when we can choose our own learning pathways. Ask teachers their preferred learning methods, then build an experience around those needs. Creating space for educator autonomy celebrates different learning styles rather than forcing professional learning into a rigid mold. Time-bound learning experiences should have multiple entry points and provide a variety of ways to engage and learn, including synchronous and asynchronous activities.

Consider the lessons and units your educators may be planning, and ask what they need in order to feel supported. Variety and flexibility in educator learning have a direct impact on student learning and open up new avenues of growth for educators and their students. Flexible interactions, such as Twitter chats, online courses and informal discussions, allow learners to apply new knowledge in their own way.

The images below show informal discussion threads and Twitter chats using #edtech4good in action. Educators discussed ways to promote collective change and inspire students to take action in a way that was engaging to them.

Example of learning opportunities to support various learning pathways. (Source: Participate)

Embed classroom practice into the professional learning experiences you create.

We learn best when we use what we learn. Challenge your educators to actively incorporate their learning into everyday life and classroom interactions. Empathy Project fellows actively observed their existing interactions and looked for opportunities to integrate SEL. In addition to this day-to-day information gathering, fellows were challenged to conduct a formalized action research project, answering the question, “How do my students exhibit empathy and demonstrate the value of multiple perspectives following virtual exchange experiences?,” through literature review and student interviews.

Look for opportunities to incorporate action research projects into your school’s or district’s professional learning. When teachers hear from their students firsthand, they can use that data to fuel their teaching practices and better integrate SEL where their students need it.

If you’re interested in developing time-bound learning experiences like the Empathy Project to support educator development and adult learners, click here or contact us at

Don’t think that you have to be the expert.

Consider who will facilitate a learning experience around SEL for your educators. Facilitators aren’t necessarily experts—their role is to guide participants in exploratory learning and often learn alongside community members. Facilitators provide continuous support and encouragement through moderated discussions and by providing thorough peer feedback.

Through facilitation and peer feedback, educators learn from one another. (Source: Participate)

The encouragement provided by facilitators within the Empathy Project solicited communication and feedback from and among fellows, building a culture of trust. This culture leads to more empathetic learners. If you’re facilitating a professional learning experience, really get to know your learners and make genuine connections. You’ll likely learn something from them in the process too.

Take time to reflect, but don’t let that be the end of the learning cycle.

Effective time-bound learning experiences encourage learning beyond the experience itself. Sustained, ongoing learning options allow for flexibility and choice, making learning valuable and relevant to everyone who engages.

Once fellows made their way through the Empathy Project, they expressed a strong desire to continue participating in virtual exchanges and building empathy in their classrooms. Many are now helping lead their schools and districts in SEL efforts. Encourage and support teachers in following further growth opportunities after a learning experience. This might be a teacher-led webinar series on core SEL competencies or an after-school yoga club to promote teacher mindfulness.

An Empathy Project Fellow shares her experience of continuous learning. (Source: Participate)

By asking teachers what they need, embedding classroom practice into PD, empowering teachers as leaders and making professional learning a continuous cycle, you are directly supporting each practitioner’s professional learning journey. Building competence around new and evolving instructional practices, content areas or assessment options is an ongoing process, and learning needs change as competence develops. When designing professional learning models, challenge yourself to put these tips into action to keep educators motivated (and excited) to learn.

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