Empathy Interviewing: Creating a Culture of Belonging



Design thinker Shelley Paul said it best: “We are living a prototype.” For educators, Shelley’s idea acknowledges our persistent state of uncertainty or “unknowingness,” making our way forward, day by day, trying out what works, iterating, learning and trying again. This kind of uncertainty, coupled with rapidly changing guidelines, can be stressful for teachers, but is the very space that many designers love most: because they listen empathetically to their users to find a way forward.

As a teacher educator and designer, I have spent the past year or so listening deeply to the stories of both teachers and kids. Using many of the tools of design thinking, I have found that one in particular has a powerful effect for almost everyone: the empathy interview. I have spent time interviewing kids at the margins of classrooms (e.g., students with disabilities, those with little access to the classroom space, those who are not challenged or who crave human interaction to learn), listening in their stories for strengths, challenges and unmet needs. Then I have turned these interviews into empathy maps and met again with these students to present the map (and sometimes the transcript) as a way of saying, “I heard you…I think I heard you say…And these ideas seem to be important to you as a learner, and a person…”

The response has been incredible, with students saying, “I felt heard and seen as a kid, not just a student.” Or, “You get me.” So I began working with teachers to do the same: introducing them to empathy interviews, identifying some students at the margins of their class communities who they wanted to better know, and then supporting them to design and lead their own interviews. Their response has been so powerful and encouraging that I believe it is a necessary way to frame our launching of the next school year. The timing is right, the process is doable, and the effects for kids are essential: to be heard, to feel understood, and to know that however much we may have learned academically in the last year, our teacher deeply cares.

Expected Impact

When teachers design and lead empathy interviews there are often two powerful effects: 1) they begin to forge strong relationships with students who were previously not well known or even “invisible” to them and 2) they use these new relationships and new insights about their students to design better spaces, routines, systems, tools and rituals for all students. That is, the empathy interview changes their perspective on what is important and who they are designing for.

As teachers welcome students into new classroom communities this fall, there is no better time to utilize empathy interviews. Teachers will be able to connect with their students as people, each of whom has experienced something unique over the last year and a half and deserves those stories to be heard by others. Students will likely feel as if their experience matters and that this teacher, who took the time to conduct this interview and present back what they heard, is welcoming them into a community of belonging.

Adopt & Adapt

My solution is a way to specifically welcome kids back into school communities with a deep sense of belonging. It is designed to replace home visits or first-day-of-school academic assessments and other “getting to know you” strategies. This year, against the powerful backdrop of “learning loss” that has the potential to rank and sort children according to all that they “don’t” know, I am proposing that teachers take time to interview their students and let those interviews guide their designing of classrooms throughout the year. I know how powerful is it both to conduct these interviews as well as to be interviewed in this specific way, focused on care and understanding.

My solution entails three elements:

  1. Gathering interested teachers to teach them how to design and lead empathy interviews
  2. Supporting them with transcription tools (e.g., Otter.ai) and collaborative whiteboards (e.g., MURAL) to gather data from the interview and turn them into empathy maps
  3. Providing ongoing coaching and support for teachers to 1) make sense of the interviews 2) use them to connect with their students and 3) begin to design a classroom community with those kids in mind

In my work with teachers I have found they they love being interviewed themselves: because the interview is a form of deep listening and care for another person’s experience. As part of the process of learning how to interview students, we would begin by interviewing each other.

Empathy interviews are powerful whenever they happen, but for students on the margins, or who are transitioning to a new space (e.g., new school) it could be really powerful to be invited to talk with one of your “next-year” teachers before you arrive at that space. Empathy interviews are not wildly difficult to learn, but do take some practice to shift one’s perspective out of “fixing” or “advice giving” into pure empathetic listening. Once teacher have a sense of how to conduct the interviews they would need occasional support in two areas: how to present back to students what they have heard (e.g., empathy map or other visual model), and how to use the insights from the interviews to welcome all students into their community.  Ideally this work happens late in the summer and/or near the very beginning of the school year.

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