A Little Help from My Friends: Helping Your Students Laugh and Learn Empathy

A Little Help from My Friends
Helping Your Students Laugh and Learn Empathy

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 10,449 views

How do we learn languages in the best possible way?

For a long time, I’ve believed that both nature and nurture play a role, but that a successful learning experience is defined largely by the environment the students are working in. As teachers, one of our responsibilities is to ensure that the learning environment is as conducive as possible to practicing language skills; it should have all the necessary resources, and be a comfortable place with adequate heat and light, of course, but there are more subtle aspects which we can address. I believe that taking care of our students’ emotional needs, and helping to create an environment of friendship, openness and cooperation, boosts language learning and results in a more positive experience for everyone.


For example, how often do your students laugh? (And I don’t mean at you or each other!) Establishing a light-hearted classroom atmosphere, where mistakes are affably corrected, not punished, and where everyone is considered equal and equally awesome, has genuinely helped to break down barriers and encourage my students’ confidence. Laughter is key because:

  • It helps to associate language learning with happiness and humor
  • Events which are funny (including moments of learning or practice) stick in the mind more readily
  • Students who are laughing are more likely to try something new, to practice a tricky structure or throw in some interesting vocabulary, because they are less fearful of making a mistake or being harshly judged
  • Laughter is a shared response, and the more common experiences your students have, the closer they will feel as people and as friends, despite what might seem major differences in their culture, faith, age, level and first language.

Discover  3 Wonderful Ways to Help Your Students Laugh and Learn Empathy

  1. Laughing together and conversing openly are your students’ first steps to a clearer understanding of their classmates’ lives and backgrounds. What might come next is a subtle form of training which runs parallel to language learning, and has as its aim the breaking down of barriers not only between nationalities and faiths, but between the students as individuals. Through a deliberate focus on empathy and compassion - two of the hardest won skills of them all, I would say - young students in particular can be guided to a more genuine appreciation for human diversity, and for the legitimacy (not to say beauty) of every other world culture. I believe there has never been a more important time to assist our students in acquiring these skills; the media seems often to seek to pull us apart from each other, while technology promises friendship and collaboration while often forming powerful, new barriers.

  2. 1

    Tackle the Difficult Topics

    Discussing subject matter which trains empathy is a great way to focus on these skills while practicing useful language. Examples include:

    • Slavery and Civil Rights
    • Gender equality; professions and the wage gap
    • Disability and how it is perceived
    • HIV/AIDS and how its sufferers live and are treated
    • Wrongful imprisonment and miscarriages of justice; Guantanamo, political prisoners, detention without trial
    • Police brutality and militarization
    • Patients’ Rights; euthanasia.

    These are not easy topics, neither are they suited for lower-level students. However, each requires that the students place themselves in the shoes of someone else - often, someone very different from themselves. I don’t recommend covering the whole list, or tackling more than one or two of these topics in a month of classes, for example, but they are great opportunities to produce language and spur thought.

  3. 2

    React Firmly to Intolerance

    As you may have seen from my other Busy Teacher articles, I’m a pretty mellow guy. Which means that when I stomp down hard on racism, misogyny and bullying in my classroom, it makes a considerable impact, and I tend only to have to do it once. I record a lot of my classes; here are two exchanges, from opposite ends of the spectrum, which show how I normally deal with problems like these. In the first, during a warm-up exercise with an intermediate-level class of largely Hispanic students, I explain the problem and offer a cultural explanation:

    Teacher: Hey, how was the [MBTA] red line this morning? I heard there were delays.
    Jose: Was bad. Very slow.
    Santi: You live in [predominantly black area of Boston]?
    Jose: (Sighs) Yes. Too much crime and problem.
    Santi: Is very black, no?
    Jose: The peoples? Is [racial slur] everywhere.
    Teacher: Woah! Slow down, Jose. I’m surprised you said that. Not cool.
    Jose: Is not cool?
    Teacher: Very not cool. You can’t say that, man. It’s the worst word.
    Santi: But is just like the word in Spanish for black!
    Teacher: I know but it’s special. Very special. You really must not say it.
    Jose: But in rap music…
    Teacher: (Hands up, asking for quiet) I know that too. But you need to trust me. That word can get you in big, big trouble.
    Jose: So, is never?
    Teacher: Please, please never say it. Promise me, OK?
    Jose: OK, OK. Promise.

    The second comes from an advanced class who I knew quite well. We were finishing the feedback from a pairwork discussion on education. The names have been changed but the conversation is genuine, as was my reaction:

    Teacher: OK, we’re almost there. Any other answers for this last one?
    Phil: Yes, the author is wrong. It’s impossible that the woman will become Head of Surgery.
    Teacher: (Surprised). You think that’s an unreasonable ambition?
    Phil: Impossible for a woman. The men will always be head of department.
    Sara: Why? Just because they’re men?
    Phil: (Snorts rudely and makes a dismissive gesture)
    Teacher: You want to put that into words, Phil?
    Sara: Of course she can become head of…
    Phil: (Same gesture) Is not an important opinion.
    Teacher: Whose? Sara’s?
    Phil: (Same gesture)
    Teacher: I have to tell you Phil, everyone’s opinion is important here. Yours, Sara’s, mine, everyone’s. That’s the way we work in my class.
    Phil: But it is fantasy!
    Sara: You’re close-minded. And rude.
    Teacher: (Sees Phil’s gesture beginning). I don’t want to see that from you, Phil. You’re being offensive. I won’t accept that.
    Phil: (Shrugs).
    Sara: One day when a woman is your boss, you’ll understand.

    This was a complex and high-stress moment with a small, advanced class. I didn’t want to obviously take Sara’s side, though I felt she was right. In the end, I had a word with Phil after class and he agreed to tone down his rhetoric. He also accepted, over the following weeks, that his views were ‘old-fashioned’. A mix of addressing the problem in class, and following up privately, seemed to work best.

  4. 3

    But React Carefully to Heightened Emotions

    If one of your students becomes upset, or there is a heated argument, it’s easy to make things worse, and difficult - but possible - to create a ‘teachable moment’ from an otherwise anxious situation. I would advise:

    • Step back, listen and watch. What’s really happening?
    • Don’t rush in with judgment, censure or advice.
    • Be impartial, if at all possible, but if someone is being threatening or violent, be firm with them.
    • Apply sanctions if you think it fair and warranted, but expulsion from the classroom should be a) a last resort, b) extremely infrequent, c) something which you publicly regret having to do.
    • Avoid physical contact. In fact, an unmistakable facial expression (concern, sympathy, warning, anger/reproach) can solve a lot of problems without even having to speak to the students.
    • If you do need to speak with someone, try to do so after class and away from their classmates.

    Your example, as a tolerant, moderate human being who listens to and cares about others, can be of central importance, especially to younger learners.

    Not everyone who comes to your class will be aware of the importance of equality and fairness, and some will come ‘pre-loaded’ with attitudes we find out-dated or simply repellent. Gently engaging with these issues can help a great deal, and help to foster life-long empathy and compassion.

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