Over 15,000 educators subscribe to my free weekly newsletter. Click here to sign up.

“A Perverse Sort of Compassion” and the Point of Strong Teacher-Student Relationships

By Dave Stuart Jr.

In the Tiistila school just outside of Helsinki, Finland, a third of the kids are immigrants, many of whom are refugees. Heikki Vuorinen is a teacher at this school, and his kids are from all over the world with all kinds of backgrounds and challenges.

Yet, fascinatingly, Vuorinen isn't comfortable focusing on the immense odds faced by his students.

Here's Vuorinen, as recorded in Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way:

I don't want to have too much empathy for [my students] because I have to teach. If I thought about all of this too much, I would give better marks to them for worse work. I'd think, ‘Oh, you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?' That would make my job too easy.

Vuorinen is passionate and excellent. He loves his work and the students it serves. If you walked into his classroom, my guess is that the sense of community and purpose, bound together by strong teacher-student relationships, would be palpable. Somehow, Vuorinen credits at least part of this to his avoidance of having too much empathy for his students.

Wait… too much empathy?

In the US, we're all familiar with the caricuture of The Teacher Who Doesn't Care. He's cynical, cold, and harsh; she's proud of her lack of empathy, of how well she's built a wall between her and her students. There are two problems with this trope:

A) No one is so simple — not even the most burnt-out teacher you know entered the profession like that.

B) It lures many teachers who don't want to be like The Teacher Who Doesn't Care into striving to be the opposite.

This latter problem fools too many of us teachers into thinking we are awesome at our jobs simply because we have deep, caring relationships with every one of our students. When a kid comes in to chat for two hours after school, we think, “Yes, I am amazing!” We pride ourselves when we feed our hungry students. And I'll be the last to tell you that it's bad to listen to or feed a child; but the fact that these are needs that some of our students enter our classes with doesn't change their equal (though less urgent) need to improve as thinkers, readers, writers, speakers, and people.

Dave, Dave, Dave, I can hear you saying. Have a heart, man! Maslow's hierarchy of needs, dude!

I get it. But I also get that the kid who comes to me for two hours of quasi-counseling after school is a kid whom I love and want to flourish long-term. Because I have a clear, ink-worthy, highest-order goal, I cannot allow myself to be distracted so much with the student's very real, very present, very serious needs that I forget about why I'm in that kid's life to begin with. Just so that you can hear the rest of my argument, know that I do spend the two hours with plenty of kids every year, that I do feed the hungry ones now and again,  and that I certainly act decisively when I think a student is at risk of harming him/herself or others, every year, and that I do freaking love my kids!

But what I'm saying is that Vuorinen is wise, and there is such a thing as too much empathy for our students. If I felt my kids' pain and heartbreak too strongly, I know myself enough to know that, like Vuorinen says, I would end up giving “better marks for worse work,” and I would end up thinking “Oh, you poor kid. Oh, well, what can I do?” Too much empathy would lead me to mail it in on the very kids who most need me not to mail it in.

The tension here — between “a perverse sort of compassion” that prizes adolescents' immediate needs over their long-term needs and a coldness of heart that too many of us succumb to — is actually one of the reasons I'm in love with teaching [1]. On the one hand being a builder and maintainer of strong relationships; on the other hand being as coldly analytical as possible about how I'm using my time, how my students are progressing in their skill, how close Jose is to ending the year where he needs to.

Don't forget why we build strong relationships with kids

The reason part of our job is to build strong relationships with kids is not solely to make classroom management easier; it's to make the point of classrooms happen. We're not simply trying to have connections with kids so that they don't hurt themselves or others, but rather so that they won't graduate from high school with lives devoid of joy, purpose, autonomy, and contribution. The nightmares of adolescent suicide and depression and anxiety are real, but I can't teach from a footing where I'm solely defending against these things — I must teach on the offense, from a place that sees and works toward the best for the young people in my care.

Let me close with a passage that inspired this post. This is from John Hattie's Visible Learning for Teachers:

So often, we are concerned about the classroom climate, but forget the purpose of warm, trustworthy, empathetic climates. The primary purpose is to allow students to feel okay about making mistakes and not knowing, and to establish a climate in which we welcome error as opportunities. Learning thrives on error: a fundamental role for teachers is to seek out misconceptions, misunderstandings, and lack of knowledge. While teachers may have warm interpersonal interactions, this is not the point. The point is: do the students believe that the climate of the class is fair, empathetic, and trustworthy? Can students readily indicate that they do not know, do not understand — without getting snide comments, looks, and sneers from peers?

May we not lose sight of the point.


  1. From Amanda Ripley's The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got that Way, p. 186.

2 Responses to “A Perverse Sort of Compassion” and the Point of Strong Teacher-Student Relationships

  1. Frank August 28, 2016 at 11:41 pm #

    Thank you for writing about this. I’ve even had administrators who presented as if love and caring was the solution in our jobs. Although they’re important elements for the well-being of our students and for fostering positive relationships, let’s not forget we are professionals with a responsibility to also teach students content and skills (yes, “I teach students, not content” – why not both?).

  2. davestuartjr August 29, 2016 at 10:59 am #

    100% agree, Frank. Thank you for writing.

Leave a Reply