Listening and Understanding: Why Empathy Is So Important in the Classroom

By Hannah Patellis

When I received the LinkedIn message from a recruiter back in 2016, I had no idea how life-changing it would be.

Initially recruited as a teaching assistant for Georgia Tech, I assisted in the school’s very first Coding Boot Camp and then became an instructor. A few months later I joined full-time as an instructional coach and reserve instructor. I now teach user experience and user interface design at Georgia Tech.

I have taught in more than 10 classes—in Savannah, Chicago, Denver, and Atlanta—and have over 600 hours of instruction under my belt.

With all that teaching came an important lesson: the vital importance of empathy in the classroom. It is crucial for an instructor, and especially for a bootcamp instructor, to display empathy.

Many students enter boot camps wanting to change their lives. Their motivations to enroll may include a desire for a career transition or for a new skill set. Whatever their reasons for embarking on the journey, they often feel quite a bit of pressure, as a lot may be riding on their decision. They may have big families at home or maybe they are just starting one. One of my students got married during the boot camp and worked even during their honeymoon. (Talk about dedication! Not so sure, though, if their partner was as excited about coding as they were.)

Very early on in my instructor role I was confronted with the intense emotions and life experiences that students have during boot camps. Students would come to me in tears, so upset because of the pressure they felt and by the rigor of the course.

It is vitally important to thoughtfully listen and be present with someone when they are on the verge of a major life change. An instructor’s job doesn’t begin and end at the front of the class. You have to be able to sit down with students during their difficult moments and say, “Hey, this is hard—absolutely. I get that. But we as your instructional team are here to help see you through this.”

As instructors we have to make sure our students are successful and have all the tools they need for that success. One of these tools we provide is a safe learning environment where students can feel secure enough to voice their fears and discuss them openly with the instructional team. That type of openness for the instructor can mean getting late night Slack messages or sitting down after class to have a heart-to-heart about what is and is not working or to offer reassurance that, so long as the students put in the effort, they can attain their learning goals even if it does not seem like it in the moment.

Our job as instructors is not only to create an environment conducive to learning and feeling safe but also to lead students on an amazing journey through discovering and understanding coding concepts that might be very foreign to them. When lecturing or helping a student one-on-one I often pause and think, “When I was learning this, what did I have a problem understanding?” or “When I was learning this, what helped me finally understand?”

We cannot expect students to fully understand the material when they walk out the door. It is through homework and in their personal coding time that they master the skills we introduce in class. This means we need to make sure students understand that if they are willing to put in the time then coding is something they can get. We reassure them that it is OK not to fully understand something right after it is presented in class.

To be the best instructors we can be, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of our students. We have to remember the anxiety-inducing feeling we once felt learning these concepts and to understand what it is like to be coming at this as a beginner.

I have observed instructors lecture at a much too advanced level, speaking in terms that do not yet make sense to the students. During these classes I look around at the worried looks on students’ faces. I can see the stress they feel as an instructor teaches them something, and they look like they are starting to drown. As instructors, we need to adapt to the level of our students and see what they are seeing.

Teaching boot camps has been unbelievably rewarding. There is nothing more satisfying than hearing a student ask a deep question and then, following a response I give them, watching them research it further, testing it out, and then returning to me with their findings. Their dedication, passion, and desire to know more makes my job worth every second. The least we instructors can do is to be there for our students, feel what they are feeling, and meet them where they are to better guide them through this journey into something great and new in their lives.