Reflections on Empathy

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been struggling a lot with one particular student. At the start of the school year, I was very clear with my classes about my policy regarding cell phones. The school technically does not allow phones in class, but my sense is that many teachers can be lax about this, looking the other way when students covertly text underneath their desks. I’m a bit different – when I see a phone, I tell the student to put it away, sometimes taking the phone from them if it seems to be a chronic problem. Because I believe phones are a major distraction to learning, and having to constantly address the phone problem is harmful to the learning of all students in the classroom, I have a policy that excessive cell phone use negatively impacts classroom participation grades. After all, and I’ve stressed this to my students, being in a virtual conversation via text makes one much less able to be present and learning from the conversations happening in real time within the four walls of our room.


So, this one “problem” student is an obsessive texter/tweeter. I have seen his phone out nearly every day since school began and have had to address it 6 or 7 times, interrupting class to do so. With any other student, this might be a minor issue, but with this student, it appears there are other issues at play that have made this silly cell phone thing the catastrophe of my current days. Apparently, after reprimanding him for the 7th time about his phone and giving him a 40% class participation grade on his progress report, the student took to Twitter and made a threat of physical violence against me. The student’s history is heavily smeared with verbal altercations with faculty members, but this physical threat is a bit different. My impression of this student is that he is an angry child, egocentric, judgmental, and lacking an ability to empathize. Though I doubt he would act on this threat right now, I know that if he remains in my classroom, it is only a matter of time before there will be a serious verbal confrontation that could sincerely impact my ability to maintain a safe learning environment for all of my students. And I do think he is capable of anger that could become physical. After all, if a kid can’t empathize, what’s to stop him from acting in a way that might hurt another human either physically or emotionally?


I don’t see this going well if he remains in my class. He now has me pegged as “out to get him,” and when he returns from his in-school suspension next week, I know his attitude will be poisonous and damaging to the atmosphere in the class. It troubles me that I am different when he is present – more tense, less caring and generous with all of my students.


And this is what truly bothers me the most about this whole situation. I’ve written before about how essential I think empathy is to good teaching and learning. I’ve always defined myself, prided myself truthfully, as someone with tons of empathy. It’s one of the reasons I got into teaching and thought I’d be good at it – because of this ability to empathize. But I just cannot be empathic or compassionate with this child. There have been other students, disrespectful ones, frequently-high ones, lazy ones, for whom I could muster some empathy and compassion. After hearing their stories, I could understand why they acted in the way they did, and I could accept them as works-in-progress. But with this student…I just can’t. I want him gone from my class, because I will be a poor teacher to 28 other students if he remains.


3 thoughts on “Reflections on Empathy

    • Thanks for your comment. I have talked to several administrators and fellow teachers about it, so I’m not alone in this. The issue is the administration seems to be more concerned with not upsetting the child’s mother than solving the problem. Apparently the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in this case.

  1. This is one of those instances where an effective administration is critical. When there are threats to a teacher’s person, whether real or not, this is where an administrator’s mettle is tested. So many of them are afraid of parents! It defies logic. Parents are afraid to be parents, administrators are afraid to upset the parents, EVERYONE is afraid to confront the kids…it adds up to disaster and sociopathic children who act out constantly, because in reality, they are desperate for some boundaries.
    I’ve been in situations very similar to yours over the years. I noticed you said some teachers seem lax about cell phone policies. My suggestion is one I learned after a great deal of stress: based upon the school board’s cell phone policy, determine YOUR classroom policy. I used to tell my students (high school): “This is the room where I spend 8 or more hours per day. It is my domain. I am the goddess of all I survey.” I kept it light hearted, clearly, but I meant it. Post up a sign, send a communication home to parents to reiterate the policy and inform them that teaching is your goal and you cannot do it with distractions from cell phones. In accordance with school board policy, you will give such and such number of warnings and then you will confiscate it until the end of class, or whatever your school’s parameters are. And do it. After about three “testers” (students who will test your management style) challenge you, if they see you remain firm, they will respect you more, and you will have fewer and fewer problems in your class.

    Don’t you notice how some teachers have little to no problems and students wouldn’t dare whip out their phones for them? You can be that teacher too if you establish your ground rules. Every day is a new day. Good luck.

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