Empathy and Technology: A Path Forward

By Katie Muhtaris

Katie Muhtaris has been an educator for 15 years in both urban and suburban settings and values learning experiences for students that are both innovative and meaningful. Katie currently works with kindergarten through fifth grade students and teachers as an Instructional Digital Age Learning Coach, with a focus on literacy, humanities, and technology. As part of this role she coaches teachers to develop and reflect on their instructional practices in literacy, and to seamlessly integrate technology to amplify student learning and voice.

Katie Muhtaris is co-author of:
Read the World Now: Rethinking Literacy for Empathy and Action in a Digital Age
Amplify: Digital Teaching and Learning in the K-6 Classroom
Connecting Comprehension and Technology


Empathy is not something people often think of when they hear the word technology. But today, more than ever before, we must consider how this core human trait and our tech tools can work hand in hand to make the world a better place. When Kristin and I started our journey with tech in the classroom, devices like the iPad were just making their way into stores and classrooms. Teachers were focused on how they could create lessons and materials for students, but we wondered…what would happen if we focused on what the kids can do? We’ve spent most of our careers focused on this inquiry question. And our thinking, like our teaching, has evolved as we learn more and as better tools are developed. Especially, as author Smokey Daniels says, when the world hands us curriculum.

In the months and weeks leading up to the World Health Organization declaring a global pandemic we watched the evolution of the news. Our media literacy skills told us to not take things at face value, to ask questions, and to critically evaluate the reliability and validity of the stories being told. As time went on, the information we began to receive evolved from the occasional news story to first person accounts, statistics, graphics, and public service campaigns. When I consider the factors that influenced me to begin to make significant changes in the way I worked and lived, it was stories of people. Videos from Italy, doctors explaining in clear language, and first-hand accounts from those that I was connected to personally and professionally. In a time when the constant cycle of news can leave us reeling, it’s a connection with people that can inspire us to make change.

Which brings us to here and now. Many schools are closed or planning to close, teachers are scrambling to shift practices online, and families are attempting to figure out how they will make it all work. The only way forward is empathy and action.

Empathy for students

“I hope that wasn’t the last day of school,” my seven-year-old blurted out just before bed time.

She looked at me expectantly waiting for me to reassure her that it wasn’t. But truthfully I didn’t know. It pains me to think of students not having closure on their year, missing the rituals that come with the weather turning warm, saying goodbye. But this is a very unique situation and when class resumes after spring break she won’t be focused on her math or her reading, she’ll want to know when she gets to see her class again.

So too I must acknowledge that my children are living through this historical moment with a shield of privilege around them. They have two parents who will work from home, a teacher mom, access to devices and guidance in how to use those devices, plentiful books and art supplies, food security. This moment requires us to consider our students home lives in a way we maybe haven’t before. We need to do that with empathy and understanding. How can we do this?

  • Connect: From Google Hangouts to phone calls there are many ways we can connect with students so they can see our face and hear our voice.
  • Consider: What are we giving students to do? Is it critical? Is it interesting? Can they do it independently?
  • Reflect: Have I tried, to the greatest extent possible, to find balance between work students need to do on a device and work that can be done without it? Am I able to equitably get paper resources like books, paper, and pencils to all students? How will my highest needs students access this material? What supports can I put in place (visuals, chunked directions, frequent checks for understanding) that can support all learners?

Empathy for families

Families are stressed! Parents are suddenly faced with the challenge of working an essential job and being unable to stay home, being asked to work from home while also watching children, or being without a job. Many families have already been affected by COVID-19 as will many more. We are not simply shifting families to a homeschool model or a traditional online program of learning. This is crisis distance learning and our interactions with students should reflect that.

In our zest to innovate we sometimes forget to evaluate what we are asking of families; caregivers with jobs, parents without teaching degrees, and varied household situations. We can:

  • Be mindful of how independent your students will be able to be with the work you are assigning. Families will likely have multiple children of varying ages potentially needing to share one device among them. Will students be able to accomplish most of this assignment on their own? How will I support students that need it? How can I structure my teaching to set them up for success? What will I demonstrate or model on video to help them?
  • Plan fun and engaging work. Consider longer term projects like investigating topics of interest, inquiry work embeds reading and writing with science and social studies! Have students generate questions, research and decide how to share their learning. Encourage them to learn a new skill from a family member and document it.
  • Be flexible and responsive, listen to families that are giving feedback. Reach out to see how things are going. Be prepared to pull back on expectations or offer more choice to students. We must continually adapt as the situation changes.

Empathy for our colleagues and ourselves

Last week we had virtual staff meetings and I realized how much I missed seeing my coworkers.

Right now communication is down to a flurry of emails, texts, and video chats. Take a few minutes to check-in with one another. A simple “how are you?” and really listening to the response can go a long way. And, take care of yourself. Give yourself time to process emotions, get exercise every day if you can, try to eat healthy. Who am I kidding? I just ate a whole box of Girl Scout Cookies.

You are doing the best you can. You are teaching in unprecedented times. We are going to take care of each other. We are going to be okay.

When we come out on the other end of this situation we are going to look back and think about all of the things we should have done, could have done, would have done. Don’t think about that now, just think about your kids. Because most of them just need to hear your voice right now. They need to know they’re okay.

Empathy for others

This pandemic will have lasting effects on our communities and society. Many families will experience financial hardship, food insecurity, and grief. These moments in history will define us as a people, we can choose to offer kind words and take action in profound ways. Consider now what actions you might take to contribute whether it be staying home, donating blood, or giving to a local food pantry. If we all move forward, while thinking of others, we really will be okay.

More resources and ideas to support teachers and students can be found on our Read The World Distance Learning site.


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