Leading with Empathy

As an introvert, I naturally shy away from the limelight as I prefer to be a fly on the wall enjoying the scene unfolding before me. But my passion for technology and teacher education has pushed me out of my comfort zone to present in front of groups of people (both large and small). I mention this because I just finished putting together a presentation I am going to share with a group of educators next Saturday. And, I am both excited and exhausted.

I’m excited because I get to share my knowledge and experience as a classroom teacher in a formerly blended, now fully online learning environment. But I’m also exhausted at the thought of having to speak in front of people.

Story of my life.

The presentation is for teachers and educators who are enrolled in an educational leadership and technology course at a local university. These master’s students are learning about leadership and organizational change. And, I was asked to share my experience as an educational leader whose passion is technology integration.

I have been presenting to teachers since 1998. I began with sharing how I created lessons that were rigorous and engaging for my middle school students. Over the years, I have shifted from merely sharing my ideas, strategies, and lessons learned to an incorporation of how technology can be the catalyst for meaningful learning.

To be clear, I am not advocating the integration of technology for technology’s sake. I am a firm believer that we have to begin with the learning objective and then match that to the technology tool. For example, if you want your students to collaborate on a writing assignment, Google Docs is the perfect medium. If you want your students to practice speaking literacy skills, then perhaps Flipgrid with their video and audio features would work. If you want your students to create a display of their learning, then Padlet would suffice as a virtual bulletin board. But it begins with the learning objective first.

Technology is the means to an end. Not the end itself.

Students are more apt (than adults) to simply jump into a task that includes technology. I’m not entirely sure why, but from my experience they just are.

Adults come to the table with prior experience, varied levels of knowledge and skills, and preconceived notions of the value of technology for student learning (Ertmer et al., 2012; Frank et al., 2011; Shifflet & Weilbacher, 2015; Wachira & Keengwe, 2011).

So, if you want teachers to “buy-in” to the idea of how technology can support student learning outcomes, you need to meet teachers where they are. And, that means starting with empathy.

Websters Dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

I mention this because when it comes to technology adoption, integration, implementation, or any other verb of your choosing, we need to first begin with empathizing with the user. And, that means starting with their concerns. What are their concerns when it comes to using technology?

Hall and Hord (2015) purport that there are six stages of concern:


  • Refocusing – I have some ideas about something that would work even better.
  • Collaboration – How is this related to what my colleagues are doing?
  • Consequence – How is my use of technology affecting students?


  • Management – I seem to be spending all of my time getting the technology set-up.


  • Personal – How will using technology affect me?
  • Informational – I would like to know more about technology. 


  • Unconcerned – I am more concerned about other things.

All of these concerns are valid and are potential barriers to technology integration. So when considering a new initiative that includes technology, professional developers, trainers, coaches, etc. need to begin by empathizing with the teacher.

How can you find out what teachers’ concerns are regarding technology?

You ask.

What I’ve learned over the years when working with both children and teachers is that everything is based on relationships. Building a good rapport with students helps when you want them to complete tasks that they may not necessarily find interesting or motivating. The same can be said for teachers. If you are asking teachers to change their thinking or instructional practice, then building a good rapport is key.

This is where being an introvert is difficult.

Normally, I am not one to start small talk. And, I am most certainly not one to just walk up to people and start a conservation. But this is something I’ve naturally done with students who walked through my doors. I know they typically hate history, so my goal is to build a connection with them so that they are at least open to the possibility that history can be very interesting. I’ve since then adopted the same practice when working with adults. I begin by getting to know them, who they are, what motivates them as a teacher, etc.

I’m hoping that these short conversations will help when it comes time for me to introduce something that is going to potentially change how they teach.

Hall and Hord (2015) also advocate for something they call the one-legged interview which is really just short conversations in passing whereby people end up sharing challenges and celebrations for whatever change initiative is on the docket. These quick conversations can occur in-between classes or in the workroom when making copies–well, maybe not at this time since most of us are still remote, but that’s not say that we can’t drop a quick email or text to a colleague to check in, right?

The relationships we build through these snippets of conversation are what help us to develop empathy for each other. Or in my case, it’s what helps me better understand the concerns of my colleagues when it comes to technology integration.

If I don’t first invest in building the relationship with my colleagues, what’s to motivate them to want to change?

I cannot empathize with their situation, I am going to talk over their heads, they won’t care what I have to say, and then everything will be for naught.

This is a lesson I’ve learned throughout my years of planning and facilitating professional development. Without empathy, very little change will happen, and I’m pretty confident that any change that did happen would not be sustainable.

Change can occur people see the value in it for themselves.

But we need to open the door and greet them with empathy.


Ertmer, P. A., Ottenbreit-Leftwich, A. T., Sadik, O., Sendurur, E., & Sendurur, P. (2012). Teacher beliefs and technology integration practices: A critical relationship. Computers & Education, 59, 423–435. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2012.02.001

Frank, K. A., Zhao, Y., Penuel, W. R., Ellefson, N., & Porter, S. (2011). Focus, fiddle, and friends: Experiences that transform knowledge for the implementation of innovations. Sociology of Education, 84, 137–156. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038040711401812

Hall, G. E., & Hord, S. M. (2015). Implementing change: Patterns, principles, and potholes (4th ed.). Pearson.

Shifflet, R., & Weilbacher, G. (2015). Teacher beliefs and their influence on technology use: A case study. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 15, 368–394. Retrieved from http://www.citejournal.org

Wachira, P., & Keengwe, J. (2011). Technology integration barriers: Urban school mathematics teachers perspectives. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 20, 17–25. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10956-010-9230-y

3 thoughts on “Leading with Empathy

  1. Really interesting thoughts, and I suppose the concept of meeting people with empathy applies to any conversation, regardless of subject matter. If our views oppose, the key is to remain open-minded and accept that other people are entitled to their viewpoints (provided they aren’t harmful), and to encourage listening and learning


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