Empathy: The Ultimate Classroom Management Skill

Meet Mary, a high school teacher serving “at risk” students in Phoenix. She has been struggling with her classroom. Students were being distracted and causing distractions. Students were blasting their music from their phones, talking to each other (not related to any learning), texting friends, and terribly unengaged in general. It spread and worsened throughout the year. She tried strategy after strategy… nothing was working. It was a strange year indeed, she never had these kinds of issues, and she felt stuck and disempowered in her own classroom.
Feeling stuck is usually a sign that we are seeing the world from a limited perspective. By expanding our perspectives, we can expand our options, and then make more empowered choices. One way to include new perspectives is developing deep empathy for someone, stepping into the shoes of another person, and seeing the world from their point of view. Gaining understanding of why Mary’s students were disengaged can help Mary gain the perspective she needs to get unstuck.

Empathy Mapping

I helped conduct a session with her and her students using a technique called Empathy Mapping. It is a simple visual tool that allows you to collaborate with others around seeking to understand someone or a group. I have used Empathy mapping time and time again for for learner-centered design of classrooms and curriculum, never failing to produce those “Ahhh, now I see” moments.
Each Empathy Map is for one person or group.
For our session, we had two Empathy Mapping posters, one representing the Teacher and one representing Students.
The Empathy Map is divided into 3 groups and 6 sections as follows”
External World (the top 2 right quadrants)
1. Observing – What is the person/group observing through their senses? What are they seeing, hearing, touching, smelling?
2. Saying and Doing – What is the observable behavior of that person/group? 
Internal World (the top 2 left quadrants)
3. Thinking – What might the person/group be thinking to themselves about what they are observing?
4. Feeling – What is the person/group feeling? These are emotions such as sad, scared, happy, calm, angry, tired. You can download a Feelings Inventory reference sheet from the Center for Nonviolent Communications website.
Needs (the bottom two squares)
5. Unmet Needs – What needs are unmet that trigger their dissatisfaction or disengagement?
6. Met Needs – What needs are being met currently that trigger their satisfaction or engagement. Needs are such things as the need for respect, safety, learning, engagement. You can find a Needs Inventory reference sheet from the Center for Nonviolent Communications website.

Our Empathy Mapping Session

The goal of the session was for teachers and students to develop empathy for one another that may evoke insights for creating a more engaged classroom. Here is how we did it.
  1. We placed two Empathy Mapping posters on the classroom whiteboard. We labeled one teacher, and the other student. 
  2. I asked students to write down on sticky notes what their teacher might be experiencing during a class in each section of the empathy map.
  3. I asked the teachers to write down on sticky notes what their students might be experiencing during a class in each section of the empathy map. 
  4. Each group posted their guesses on the Empathy Map posters.
  5. I then asked the students to look at what the teachers guessed about them and also for teachers to view what students guessed about them. Remarkably, they both said it was pretty accurate. 
  6. I then asked for them to add to their own Empathy Map, if there was anything missing.


  • Teachers were relieved and delighted to see that students stated “Needs Met” for teachers when they saw students being successful.
  • Students and teachers, both agreed regarding the distractions of classmates talking, cell phones, and music. 
  • Students had a high sense of autonomy, the need for respect from teachers and peers, and high value of social connections.
  • Students needs were met when: 
    • teachers were “calm”
    • teachers made respectful requests to students (such as saying “please”)
    • they worked in teams
    • they were being creative
    • they finally understand the material
  • Student needs were unment when: 
    • there were too many distractions from classmates, such as too many people talking in class and music from phones.
    • teachers shouting instructions
    • teachers used “big words”
    • they lacked relevancy of why they have to do the learning activity
    • they felt tired and hungry
    • they felt confused


We then began to have discussions about what the Empathy Maps were showing us. Here are some of the highlights I was able to capture:
  • The teachers and students stated that although students and teachers see that about cell phones were distracting, that when the teacher tries to take away the phone, some will refuse. This resulted in insights that their need for fairness and respect may not be met, as sometimes the teachers were not consistent on how and when they did this. 
  • When asked if they want the teachers to not tell them how to learn, Students reported they would not know what to do. They wanted the structure that teachers provided in telling them how to perform an activity.
  • Students reported what works for classroom management is negative consequences. (My thought here is that this all they have known, there are better ways. But, the point of this session was to listen and to understand their point of view). I reflected back, asking if the unmet need here was for structure, guidance, and accountability. It turned out the teacher was trying to “empower” the students more, but, they were not yet ready for level of freedom they were given (As a side note, Agile Classrooms is designed specifically to avoid this issue by progressing classrooms through a series of stages of empowerment. A foundational stage is to build clarity & structure, creating a sturdy structure to grow student choice).

Insightful Action

Mary had a big insight from the session that she has been focusing “on the wrong thing”. Which was focusing so much on the content and not enough time on creating fair and consistent classroom norms. These of course, are all things she knows and has done in the past, but, like I said, it was a tough year.
She committed to making changes right away. Mary started off each class apologizing to them, that she failed them as a teacher, by not holding them accountable and creating clear expectations. She then implemented a Classroom Agreement, specifically adding norms about electronics, and made visible how they would keep each other accountable. 
Although their was some fear of resistance, their was none. All the students knew the phones were interfering with their learning, and they did want to learn, they viewed what she was requesting of them as fair. Mary met their need for respect, fairness, and guidance that was evoked in the Empathy Mapping session. In just one day, the classroom was more focused, engaged, and orderly. All of this came from 30 minutes of gaining empathy for her students, having real conversations with them, and a teacher vulnerable and courageous enough to make the changes needed. 

Your Move

Where could you use Empathy Mapping to help you and your classroom? I guarantee that the insights you gain will be worth it! Download your own Empathy Mapping sheet now.
If you do use the empathy map, please share by commenting on this blog or emailing me.
Thank you for reading!
John Miller | Chief Empowerment Officer | Agile Classrooms

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