Pedagogical Fatigue & Empathy

By this time in the semester I’m always tired. It’s partly physical fatigue, and emotional (so many new relationships to establish). There is, however, another kind of weariness. It always sneaks up on me. I am fatigued from traveling up and down, what I’ve come to call, the teaching and learning ladder.

I don’t know what else to call it. Let me know if you have a better term. For the longest time I didn’t realize the ladder existed; but it was there, always, and in every class I was traveling up and down without knowing it. Now that I recognize it, and know that my ladder2students and I are on it together, I have an entirely new sense for the importance, centrality even, of this: pedagogical empathy. Let me explain.

I stumbled upon it in the weirdest place. In the Preface to C.S. Lewis’ little commentary on the Psalms, he describes the perplexing difficulty that students have with getting answers from teachers. Sure, teachers are constantly offering responses to student questions, but do our responses — Socratic, didactic, or otherwise — actually address the questions our students are asking?

C.S. Lewis describes it like this:

It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than a master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought to me by my pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms [Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1958], 1-2)

I know that struggle! Compared to my students, I stand on the ladder several rungs higher and thus hear their questions from my rung. Not their rung. Questions make perfect sense from their rung, because the student and her questions live and breathe the same air. And that’s the rub: I live and breath on a different rung and share the air with different questions and insights. From my rung, I can sometimes see their questions aren’t quite the right ones. I see, as Lewis puts it, “a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.”

Pedagogical empathy is meeting a student on her rung, and its hard. “I’m not used to the air,” I gasp. “The vista looks strange from here,” I complain. “These aren’t the right questions!” I gripe. Its hard, but I’m learning at least two benefits from all my trips down the ladder. Continue reading