Want Students to Succeed? Teach with a Tough Empathy Pedagogy


By David J. Kimball

Kimball Want Students to Succeed 300x300I first stumbled upon the phrase “tough empathy” when reading “Why Should Anyone Be Led by You” by Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones. In their essay, Goffee and Jones state that “real leaders empathize fiercely with their followers and care intensely about their people’s work. They’re also empathetically ‘tough.’ This means giving people not necessarily what they want, but what they need to achieve their best” (2000). Sound familiar? It should, because it’s what our best teachers do every day. They practice a tough empathy pedagogy.

Teaching with tough empathy is not a soft pedagogy. It is an education principle that requires teachers to give students what they need, not what they want. At best, this method of instruction respects where students are in relation to the task they are asked to complete. When executed correctly, teachers have an understanding of students’ current knowledge and skills and how a lack of either affects students’ emotional well-being and academic success. With this information, teachers are better equipped to implement interventions and supports that help students succeed.

Empathy is an essential trait for any educator. At some point in our lives, all of us have become frustrated when learning something new. I know I have. Looking back, it was the patience and understating of a dedicated teacher, both in and out of the classroom, that helped me navigate the roadblocks. Even now, the most effective teachers I work with are those who teach with a tough empathy pedagogy. Here are three guidelines these teachers follow in order to implement this pedagogy.

Hold students to high expectations. These teachers are passionate about what they teach, and they care deeply about how well students learn the material they put forth. While we expect this from all teachers, I’ve seen time and time again where many fall short. Some are quick to say that students are lazy or have poor work ethic—or worse, they pity them and let them slide. This is not the case for those who practice tough empathy. These teachers understand that by lowering expectations, they can make things easier for students, but such actions shortchange students in the long run. They prefer to give students the skills and knowledge they need, instead of allowing them to just squeak by.

Listen to students with a desire to understand, not ridicule. Listening is a skill. If you pay close attention to students, most of the time you will find that there are good reasons why they are not doing their work, or why their work is of poor quality. Sometimes, students lack the confidence to fail, pull themselves back up, and try again. Or, there may circumstances outside of students’ control that they are not always willing to share. When we listen to students—really listen—and learn about their misunderstandings, fears, and hopes, we are better at anticipating their needs and providing meaningful supports.

Never give up on students. When we empathize with people, we understand and share their feelings. I have yet to meet a student who doesn’t want to succeed. Even those who are adamant that they don’t care about failing a class or graduating are sure to stand proud when they triumph. Never giving up on a student does not mean you are blindly optimistic; it means you understand the obstacles that separate them from success and work tirelessly to help them overcome those obstacles. This is not easy, especially if students fight you the entire way and colleagues begin to ask you why you are even bothering. But never giving up is the hallmark of a tough empathy pedagogy. To teach with tough empathy means you cannot give students what they want—permission to fail. You must instead give them what they need—a person who cares enough to help them over the hurdles.

If you practice a tough empathy pedagogy, it is time for you to bring your colleagues into the fold. If you don’t, I encourage you to follow the three guidelines described above. The benefits will surely have a positive influence on your teaching and prime your students for future success.



Goffee, R., & Jones, G. (2000, September/October). Why should anyone be led by you?

Harvard Business Review.  Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2000/09/why-should-anyone-be-led-by-you

David J. Kimball is an assistant principal at Lyman Hall High School in Wallingford, Conn. He began his career as an English teacher and is currently pursuing his EdD in instructional leadership at Western Connecticut State University. Connect with Kimball on Twitter @Dave_Kimball.