Principal frustrated by rigid teacher’s lack of empathy

Q: I’m a principal at a large public high school in Wisconsin. As principal, I know some teachers will need more hand-holding than others, but one of my 9th-grade science teachers is really giving me a run for the money. She’s actually a competent teacher. Her students leave her class with a solid knowledge base, she meets all deadlines, she’s reliable, and she has no issues with classroom management. And yet parents are constantly calling me with complaints. I always tell my staff that students won’t care what you know until they know that you care. This teacher is like a robot. She’s rigid and inflexible when kids encounter hardships. She’ll only relent if she has to adhere to a school policy, such as with concussions. But that’s it. This isn’t about lazy, procrastinating students approaching her for extensions; these are kids who’ve encountered serious family or personal emergencies. She interacts with them with no warmth or understanding. Which is where I come in. Parents tend to hit the same brick wall as their children and then ask me to intervene. But this teacher doesn’t care about pleasing me either, and she’ll stare at me coldly too. I know exactly how the kids feel! She either doesn’t get it or doesn’t care. How can I teach her to at least fake normal human interactions?   

A:  I would focus on skill-building as opposed to trying to change her temperament or personality. This is a detail-oriented person who needs a lot of scaffolding, rules and specific strategies. I understand your instinct to appeal to her empathy for students facing a hardship, but that hasn’t worked. It’s time to try something different. 

I’m going to share a student example that I think has applicability. I recently spoke to Dr. Niobe Way, a developmental psychologist at New York University. Her research focuses on teaching adolescents how to identify and solidify meaningful relationships. To do this, she goes into English classrooms and partners with teachers to train kids how to conduct interviews. Students believe they’re learning how to collect information like an anthropologist or journalist, but that’s not Way’s true goal. She wants to show teens how to make human connections. The kids conduct a series of interviews with a teacher, administrator or parent, asking questions such as “What do you fear most in life and why?” and “What was your most meaningful friendship?”  

People tend to think of empathy when they think about social-emotional skills, but Way has discovered that curiosity might be an even more fundamental part of good relationships. Her project teaches kids how to be good listeners and pay attention to an interview subject’s story. At the same time, the student learns to listen to their own internal voice and to identify relevant follow-up questions. Way told me that it’s much easier to teach kids interviewing skills than her doctoral students, because kids have an easier time tapping into their natural instincts. 

So what does this mean for your teacher? Instead of trying to convince her to care, teach her how to have a conversation with kids. Even if students don’t get their way, they’ll be less frustrated if they feel heard. She may even react differently if there’s a different flow to the conversation. Teach her interviewing and listening skills. For example, she can try asking five follow-up questions directly related to whatever the child has said before she settles on a verdict. Explain that active listening means she’s focused and making eye contact with her body turned toward the child. Nothing she asks should be a binary “yes or no” question.  She should maintain a neutral expression and conceal any judgment or contempt. Once she stops asking questions, she should reflect back what she’s heard. She doesn’t need to buy into the kid’s argument to summarize it. The goal is to get her to the point where she actually listens to the child before shutting him or her down.  

You can role play the interaction with the teacher. Play the part of the student, and then flip positions. Give feedback on areas of improvement. Also, keep in mind that when you’re trying to change behavior, it can backfire if you try to do too much at once. I would stick to this one technique for several weeks and observe her interactions with students. When you talk to parents, invite her to join you so you can model a different way of interacting with others. She may lack skills, or empathy, or be struggling with something in her own life, but she does like rules. If you make this about your expectations and focus on skill-building, you’ll be more likely to set her up for success. 

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PHYLLIS L. FAGELL (@Pfagell; is the school counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C., a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda, Md., and the author of the Career Confidential blog.


  • NJK

    Should she be a teacher? Is there a balance that is necessary to be considered a really good teacher? How many students have tuned out because of her lack of empathy and rigidity?

    On the other hand, I think the strategies put forth are excellent. The teacher does like rules and policies. Make it about that. PD to build the skills she seems to lack are worth a try but if it does not work, what recourse does the principal have?

  • Rich

    This is nonsense! The principal seems like someone who has never taught or taught for a few years then became a parent pleaser! This is what wrong with our education… the teacher is expected to keep everyone happy by catering to the kids and parents and making all kinds of exceptions to rules… then why have any rules if you expect teachers to keep changing them everytime a kid or parents doesn’t like something?

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