NEW VOICE: Minimising the Empathy Gap

PGCE student Emily Bolton reflects on the importance of emapthy in pastoral care.

The Empathy Gap is a psychological concept that I came across during previous research, reading Hattie and Yate’s 2013 ‘Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn.’ It can be defined as a cognitive issue where some are unable to put themselves in the position of somebody else who is dealing with something difficult or is in a poor mental state. Often, this is because they are content and secure in themselves and may not feel the required level of empathy to support them (Hattie and Yates, 2013) (Effectiviology, n.d.) (Zweistra, 2019).

Hattie and Yates (2013) talk about the empathy gap in relation to positive teacher/student relationships. They believe that positive relationships in the classroom link heavily to student achievement, meaning students are going to be more engaged. There are two professional standards in the educational

Hands all together with a heart painted on their collective palms

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

training framework that apply to this, which are to ‘Value and promote social and cultural diversity, equality of opportunity and inclusion’ and to ‘Build positive and collaborative relationships with colleagues and learners’. If these are met, it is likely the empathy gap is small.

Empathy, I feel, is an important trait to have as a teacher. A professional who has a duty of care for others. Not only is empathy understanding others’ points of view but also understanding others’ feelings (Jeffrey, 2017). To me, it is important for teachers to get to know students on a deeper level, and having those interpersonal skills is only going to help teachers to bridge that gap of empathy further. Empathy is about caring, having consideration and compassion for others, and having the ability to notice when something is not quite right (Zweistra, 2019). Adding to this, Zweistra (2019) discusses the empathy gap further by suggesting self-reflection is important to those who struggle with the ability to empathize; therefore, teachers could reflect on this to support them in closing the empathy gap.

Although empathy is an important part of a teacher’s role, I can understand how this can be difficult and how there becomes an ‘Empathy Gap’. Kraft (2019) explains that in both teachers and students when stress and anxiety increases, empathy decreases, which then creates the ‘empathy gap’. In teaching and learning, this can be inevitable and I see this often in both staff and students in my current role. Teachers have a high workload and can sometimes miss learners’ cues. They also may not have had much experience in dealing with any pastoral difficulties. Additionally, during this year of remote learning, teachers have had the difficult job of building a rapport with their students on a pastoral level whilst not having that constant face to face contact. Going back to Harris and Yates’ (2013) statement on positive relationships, it could be questioned if having a gap in empathy does have an impact on this teacher/student relationship? And if every teacher has an understanding of how empathetic they are?

Currently, I still work in the pastoral side of education, which has always been a passion of mine and one of the reasons for me choosing to progress into teaching. I enjoy giving one to one support to the students and making sure they are progressing the way they should. Through this role, my empathy has only grown as has my experience. In a blog by Dabell (2019), he believes that pastoral care should be at the core of a teacher’s responsibility, that empathy is essential to their practice. This is where I feel most confident and know my empathy gap is usually small. I am sure this will only improve my ability in becoming an effective teacher.

This is a concept I could delve a lot deeper into. I feel I have only just touched the surface of the Empathy Gap and how this impacts teachers’ practice and students’ learning. I have always believed in the importance of empathy in education, but I also understand now the pressure that we are under as teachers.


Dabell, J. (2019, – -). What does effective pastoral care look like?

Effectiviology. (n.d., – -). The Empathy Gap: Why People Fail to Understand Different Perspectives.

Education and Training Foundation. (2017). Professional standardsforteachers and trainers in education and training. 

Hattie, J., & Yates, G. C. R. (2013). Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn. Taylor and Francis Group.

Jeffrey, D. (2017). Communicating with a human voice: developing a relational model of empathy. Journal of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 47(3), 266-270.

Kraft, H. (2019, January 23). Student Anxiety, “The Empathy Gap”, & Social and Emotional Learning.

Zweistra, C. A. (2019). Closing the Empathy Gap – Technology, Ethics, and the Other [Dissertation, Delft University of Technology].

Emily Bolton

Emily Bolton is a PGCE student at Kirklees College, Business and Travel teacher and pastoral tutor.