Sharing in their Humanity
by Aaron Carmichael
“Haruto” was crying in my office. Sobbing, actually. After more than a week of absences from class – a week in which my colleagues and I had been left wondering what had happened to one of our most diligent students – he finally reappeared; completely disheveled, hair a mess, a bit of stubble sprouting from his chin, wearing clothes that looked slept-in, his eyes bloodshot. I knew something was wrong the moment I saw him. He began muttering, “Sorry teacher. Sorry.”
It turned out that Haruto had spent the entire week in bed, suffering from a severely broken heart. His girlfriend in Japan had ended their relationship over a video call, and he had spent days unable to interact with anyone without bursting into tears. Haruto explained this through sharp sobs, his body shaking. Another teacher in our Intensive English Program had heard from the hallway, and when he entered my office to help offer support, Haruto wrapped his arms around my colleague, clinging tightly as he continued weeping.
Haruto’s grief over his broken relationship reminded me of two things. It reminded me that my students have complex lives filled with joys and sorrows that stretch way beyond the classroom. It also reminded me of a time in my own life, when I was far from home, studying Chinese in the city of Zhengzhou, suffering from a broken heart, just like Haruto. I had fallen hard for a friend, and though my relationship with her appeared promising at first, it did not last. Though I had never sat crying in a teacher’s office, I knew his emotional suffering very intimately.
During his extended absence, Haruto had missed enough assignments and tests to damage seriously, if not doom, his grades in our program. I could have chosen to adhere strictly to policy, but of course, I didn’t. My personal experience with heartbreak had prepared me to respond empathetically. I knew what it was like to have a relationship unravel while thousands of miles from home. It had kept me in bed at times, too.
As a teacher, it is sometimes easy to empathize with my students, but often it is not. My pride, my frustration with a student’s performance in class, or even simply my busyness can become obstacles to approaching those I teach with empathy. Nevertheless, I’m convinced that the practice of actively seeking to understand my students’ lives is vital to the process of becoming more like the Master Teacher. His incarnation allowed Him to, as the book of Hebrews puts it, share in our humanity. He was “fully human in every way,”  and this led to mercy. This led to a deep understanding of the human condition. The Master Teacher’s empathy was hard-won. The writer of Hebrew’s uses the word suffered.
There are numerous examples of how the Master Teacher’s humanity affected His teaching and interactions with others, but one of my favorites is in the Gospel of Matthew. A crowd numbering in the thousands had followed the Teacher for days. He sees them and knows they must be hungry. He knows because He has a stomach, too. He knows because He has been in the wilderness, far from home, with nothing to eat. The Master Teacher says, ““I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat. I do not want to send them away hungry, or they may collapse on the way.”  The instinct He has to feed them seems almost motherly. He concerns Himself with every aspect of His students’ well-being, and this is significant not only because compassion is important, but also because it makes for teaching that is more effective. The crowds followed, listened, and learned because they knew the Teacher cared. He had already healed many of them. Such demonstrations of empathy had prepared their hearts and minds to hear His teaching.
I see the truth of this in my own classrooms. When I consider my students’ full range of experiences and needs, my teaching is improved and my students benefit. When I allow my experience as a language learner to help shape my lesson planning, my teaching is improved and my students benefit. When I acknowledge the physical and emotional toll of living in a new culture and learning a second language, my teaching is improved and my students benefit.
My colleagues and I did our best to help Haruto catch up with his missed assignments. We monitored him the rest of the semester, inviting him to come back to talk with us if he ever felt depressed. He soon returned to form as a dedicated student, and by the end of the semester, seemed to have recovered from the heartbreak. When it was time for him to return to Japan, he thanked us for helping him through one of the most difficult experiences of his young life. The gratitude Haruto expressed is a reflection of the gratitude felt by those who know the Master Teacher. He has walked a mile in our shoes, as the saying goes, and this makes His teaching even more powerful.
 Hebrews 2:17, New International Version.
 Hebrews 2:18, New International Version.
 Matthew 15:32, New International Version.
- Hebrews 2:5-18
- Matthew 15:29-39
What’s your perspective?
We welcome your comments on any of the ideas in this post or in answer to the questions below.
- What experiences have made it possible for you to empathize with your students?
- How have you been able to share in their human struggles, whether related to learning or life?
- What gratitude do you feel for the Master Teacher as you consider his “hard-won” empathy?
Aaron Carmichael has taught English for the past decade at universities in China and the United States. He has served as the director of the Intensive English Program (IEP) at Missouri Southern State University since 2015. Aaron currently lives in Webb City, Missouri, with his wife and six month old son.