Empathy has long been an intrinsic part of the education system, “if schools are involved in intellectual development, they are inherently involved in emotional development” (Hinton, 2008, p. 90). A student’s emotions coming into the class affect the way, and how much they learn. Educators must be able to connect to, and understand their students in order to best serve those students' needs “focused on nurturing learning rather than judging performance” (Hinton, 2008, p. 91). Teachers in the classroom face students from all different backgrounds, sometimes very different from their own.
Not only must teachers have empathy for their students in order to best teach them, they must develop this skill in their students. "Expressing care for another is not an innate ability present more naturally in some people than others, but rather a skill that can be taught and nurtured through a supportive educational environment" (McLennan, 2008, p. 454). In well-run classrooms where interpersonal skills are valued, teachers set guidelines and rules about how students are to interact with their peers because they know that their students learn best when they have positive relationships with those around them. Developing positive relationships requires empathy skills like listening to others, understanding verbal and nonverbal cues, and learning to understand, and appreciate the differences in others. Students bring their lives into the classroom; they do not leave their problems and feelings at the door, and when classmates do not have the skills to understand and work with their diverse classmates problems can arise. Hollingsworth (2003, p. 139) states that ten percent of the hate crimes reported in America occur within schools, and she argues that it is the educator’s job to teach tolerance and empathy to students because it cannot be assumed that these skills are being addressed in the home. Teachers must take this into account as they work together with their students to build knowledge. As classrooms become more and more diverse students can no longer expect to meet peers who eat the same food, practice the same religion, or hold the same beliefs as they do. Students want and deserve more from their education, a deeper understanding and a richer enjoyment of life, and the ability to connect and build meaningful relationships with others.
There are also standards for teacher performance that address the importance of empathy such as those that state the teacher must maintain effective student environments and support all students in learning. Standards that relate to empathy can be found in the History, English, and Health frameworks that call for students to respect and deal empathically with others, or the characters or historical people they read and learn about.
A Rationale for Empathy in the Classroom