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Empathy vs. Sympathy: What is the difference, and why does it matter?

Have you ever heard a teacher or school administrator make a comment such as, “I’m not in it for the money”? While there are myriad opinions out there regarding whether or not teachers are appropriately compensated, the reality is that there are few (if any) educators who would indicate “high salary” as the reason they chose this profession. Rather, school personnel cite non-financial reasons that motivated them to pursue a career in education—namely, the desire to have a positive impact on the lives of others and to help children who are struggling.


So, what does this have to do with empathy and sympathy? Well, I would argue that the profession of teaching commands a high degree of empathy. Before we can successfully immerse our students in academic content, we first must establish a relationship with them. If the children in a classroom do not trust their teacher or believe their teacher respects them, it will be difficult for them to be open-minded about learning. Students’ social-emotional needs must be met before we can expect academic engagement; therefore, building relationships and a sense of community within the classroom is essential.

The question then becomes, how do we establish trust with students in an authentic way, especially those students who come from high-trauma environments? I believe this is where empathy comes into play and why it is so important. But before we can talk about the role of empathy in the classroom, we first have to understand its definition. And perhaps the most useful way to do this is to contrast empathy with sympathy, because although these two terms are often used interchangeably, they have very different meanings. So let’s start by clarifying the difference.



University of Houston professor Dr. Brené Brown narrates a brief animated video on empathy versus sympathy, which can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw . In this clip, Dr. Brown indicates that one of the key differences between empathy and sympathy is connection with another person (or the lack thereof). She explains that empathy “fuels connection” while sympathy “drives disconnection.” She cites the work of nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman, whose research identified that empathy occurs when we are able to take the perspective of another person, withhold judgment, understand another person’s feelings, and communicate that understanding. As Dr. Brown summarizes: empathy is “feeling WITH people.”

Conversely, sympathy is a much less vulnerable response. Rather than making a personal connection with someone’s discomfort, we stand at a distance and offer words of encouragement. As Dr. Brown points out, it is our very nature to want to make things better, so our default approach is often to find the silver lining in a situation. And while that is done with the best of intentions, the reality is that such a response is unlikely to ease someone’s feelings of despair. If our goal is to help someone find hope in an otherwise bleak situation, the most effective way to do this is to CONNECT with them.

What implications does this information have for educators? I think it is relevant on two levels. Firstly, we are able to build better connections with our students when we can convey empathy towards them. Unfortunately, many of our students encounter incredibly difficult, unfathomable circumstances in their home lives. They walk through our doors every day carrying a full emotional load: fear, anger, confusion, distrust—you name it. And while we may not be able to relate to their exact experiences, what we CAN connect with are the emotions. In the midst of their struggles, what our students need most is to feel understood.

The second piece to this is our responsibility to teach students to have empathy for each other. Facilitating an improved sense of community within the classroom and the school doesn’t stop at the faculty’s relationship with students—students’ relationships with one another are equally important. We DO have the capacity to build empathic schools and classrooms where students feel connected. Once that sense of trust, safety and connection is established, students can begin to participate in academic learning.

One could argue that most educators, by nature, tend to be problem-solvers. Consequently, perhaps one of the greatest frustrations of our profession is that we can’t “fix” the day-to-day struggles our kids encounter at home. We can’t fix the poverty, the incarcerated parent, the dangerous neighborhood. But one thing we CAN change is how we engage with our students. We must remind ourselves that our job is not to “fix,” but rather to make meaningful connections. And empathy is a pretty powerful tool. So, doesn’t that seem like a good place to start?

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Jennifer Pincoski is a Senior Staff Developer  for the Program Evaluation and School Improvement Services Division at Measurement Incorporated.





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