From Knowing to Empathising

The start of a new school year brings with it a whole bunch of new students to get to know. Principals around the country will be urging their staff to get to know their learners and reminding them of the importance of relationships to enable learning to occur. So what does this actually mean? How do we get to really know our learners?


The first steps to getting to know your learners happens before you even meet the class. Schools now have a range of Data available on students. By going into your school SMS, you can find out a whole pile of achievement and personal data about your learners.

Achievement Data: how did they go last year in NCEA / National Standards / Asttle / in school assessments etc? What do last year’s reports say about possible areas of strength or where they need more assistance? The amount of data that schools have on students now can be very useful for teachers. Keep in mind though, that this what they were like and how they went for a completely different teacher than you are.

Personal Data: Your school system will also allow you to see where students are living, who they are living with and details such as their ethnicity. These all help provide more of a picture of a student’s life but is also information that needs to be looked into deeper.

In terms of a student’s family situation, sometimes the contact on your database is not the significant person they turn to in their life. Big sister or Granddad can sometimes be that critical person for a student, not always the parents (thanks to Deanne Thomas for this great piece of advice last year).

Ethnicity is also just a starting point. Often our systems have 1 or 2 ethnicities noted down for a student but they may actually have multiple ethnicities that they identify with. Or alternatively they may not identify at all with the ethnicity, it is just what their bloodline is and nothing to do with who they are as a person. Also, our ethnicity labels are highly problematic in schools – Asian/Pasifika/African etc. hide a multitude of diversity within.

Identity is so much more than ethnicity and often a student may not want to be defined by their ethnicity. Identity will evolve over time and a person’s cultural identity is something that can also develop over time. For more on this, I highly recommend reading Manu Faaea-Semeatu’s post on the Core Education blog.

So, Data is great. But it is only a starting point. We need to add so much more to be able to truly get to know our learners.

Over the first few weeks, you can employ a few strategies to understand your learners better.


Start by noticing the dispositions that your students display. How well do they work collaboratively and independently? How confident are they to take risks? How creative are they when set a challenge? What strengths or weaknesses do they display on different tasks? To do this you need to set a range of different tasks over the first few weeks so that you can observe them operating in different ways (for help here, see Bruce Hammonds’ blog post on tasks that allow students to demonstrate different dispositions or an old post of mine with a series of activities to get students actively exploring).

I would also recommend keeping a little observation journal over these first few weeks. This could be an actual notebook or a digital document/spreadsheet so that you can actually note down your observations after each class. Often, as teachers, we set these range of activities to see how they operate, but don’t actually write down what we see. The aim here is to get to know each individual learner, not just how the whole class responds. To do this, you will need to write it down – my memory certainly couldn’t cope with remembering small observational details on so many new students over the first month!


Ahh, a teacher favourite, that start of year survey! Tell me about yourself, why take this subject, favourite place etc. etc. etc. If you are doing this in your class, then chances are, the students’ other teachers are as well. What about sharing this information to get a fuller picture about each student?

Or, alternatively, make use of their Form/Advisory time and do one comprehensive survey with results shared wider with teachers. Take this chance to really target your questions so that you can find out students’ passions and interests so that you can use this in planning to make lessons more relevant to your students’ lives. I came across the idea of the 360 Survey last year and highly recommend checking it out. The question on “I wish my teacher knew…” provided incredibly powerful information on many of my students. Imagine if we had this for all students in our schools.

Talk/Discuss/Have Conversations

I’m not thinking that this will be surprising or confronting to teachers, but have conversations with your students. Not just about their equipment/uniform/behaviour, but a general conversation. By now, you know quite a bit about them, show them that you are actually interested and care about them and you will find out even more. Regularly, people will tell you far more in a conversation than they ever will on a survey form. Speak about their weekends, their plans for the future, ask about one of their interests you discovered in a survey. Most importantly here, actually listen to their answers rather than pushing your own agenda.

All of this together – the data, observations, surveys and discussion snippets will add up to a deeper understanding of each learner in your class. This more holistic understanding of your students will really allow you to meet their individual needs.

This is what student centred approaches are really about – not just what students want, but actually having empathy for each student so that their learning opportunities will meet their specific, individual needs.



6 thoughts on “From Knowing to Empathising

  1. Pingback: From Knowing to Empathising | Teaching and Lear...

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  3. Great post Steve – an additional thought. Teachers must never presume that because students are identified as Māori, that they are hau kāinga in the region where the school is located. Nor can you presume that they are au fait with protocols and tikanga Māori. On the other hand, knowing their iwi and hapū links, their pehepā – is a huge cultural advantage. Cultural responsive practice starts with knowing the students and their whānau circumstances – warts and all sometimes.
    Thanks Steve for your valuable advice in this blog.

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