Making connections

The importance of empathy for school leadership

Empathy is a formidable confidante which allows educational leaders to build collaborative communities which influence, innovate and enhance student outcomes. Melissa Etherton explores empathy as a leadership tool and how it can have a positive impact on a school community.

 What it is

Empathy is the action of understanding and sharing the feelings of another and can be a powerful tool which assists leaders to realise their capacity if it is consistently practiced. This takes time and commitment: in order to make genuine contact with the world of others it must be through our words, actions, gestures, tone of voice and posture.

Relationship Development

Schools thrive on the development of relationships; strong, vibrant connections are fostered by genuinely knowing each other, providing care and communicating effectively. For these connections to be truly valuable and powerful agents of change, school leaders must share something of themselves. These personal stories and intimate connections lead to trust and effective collaboration (Ezard, 2017, p. 176-177).

For Annette Rome, Principal – St Margaret’s and Berwick Grammar School,

‘Empathy is a key part of developing relational trust with staff, students and families. It involves active listening, humility, deep thinking (rather that jumping to conclusions), and working in genuine partnership with others to make lives better.

(A. Rome, personal communication, February 3, 2018).’

Rebore (2003, p. 32) highlights the need to view empathy as an attitude and not a technique. Leaders, through an empathetic attitude, are entrusted to create a community which sets people at ease, enables them to feel comfortable and perceive the feelings of others. These bonds which are cultivated ensure a common focus and encourages dialogue to explore alternatives to the status quo. For George Couros, this is an essential part of any institutional change process:

‘If we want meaningful change, we have to make a connection to the heart before we can make a connection to the mind. Spending time developing relationships and building trust is crucial to moving forward as a whole (Couros, 2015, p. 79).’

Community Values

Educational institutions have an obligation to prioritise the care of human beings and value the role, and  the practice of empathy can play a key role. It is essential that staff and students feel comfortable and know that it is acceptable to voice their opinions, show emotions and be themselves within their community. This openness is critical for positive human functioning. Allan Griffin, Deputy Head of Middle School at Carey Baptist Grammar School thinks leaders should be flexible and responsive in order to win trust.

‘Empathy’ he argues ‘is conveyed through what you do more than what you say and means checking in, consulting and offering others a voice in decision making(A. Griffin, personal communication, February 4, 2018).’

Individual Strengths & Weaknesses

Successful leadership requires real knowledge of one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Being able to accept criticism and seek feedback to improve personal leadership is fundamental in an effective organisation. It is also crucial to become aware of your impact on others and creating a culture which promotes trusting relationships. Angela O’Dwyer, Executive Deputy Principal of Loreto Mandeville Hall Toorak, argues that emotional intelligence is one of the key characteristics of successful leadership and that empathy lies within this suite of emotions. ‘A good leader’ she suggests ‘should know their people and understand what it is that drives their motivation’.

Empathy and teaching:

Empathetic educational leadership provides role modelling for teachers as they develop good classroom practice. Teachers are unreservedly required to make a positive impact on the lives of the students in their care: student success is facilitated by knowing one’s students individually and acknowledging their disappointments as well as their successes. Empathy is key. Michael Nelson, Head of Teaching and Learning at Geelong Grammar School argues that student teacher relationships which deteriorate, do so due to a perceived lack of empathy from teachers (M. Nelson, personal communication, February 4, 2018).

Empathy and compassion

It is crucial that 21st Century educators remove themselves from their own shoes and place themselves into the shoes of their students. Daniel Goleman in his TED talk ‘Why aren’t we more compassionate?’ speaks about social neuroscience research which confirms that natural human wiring is ‘to help’ – we instinctively attend to the needs of others. In other words, it is natural to empathise.


These moments of compassion and empathy are crucial in the classroom – students must believe teachers are ‘with them’, are able to suspend judgement and help them identify a successful way forward. Through empathy and compassion, these influential teacher student connections promote self-learning and enhance a student’s capacity to explore valid alternatives and fresh perspectives to reach their dreams and goals.


Melissa Etherton

Melissa Etherton is the Administrative Manager at Loreto Madeville Hall Toorak. Prior to this she was Dean of Middle Years at Xavier College: Burke Hall, Melbourne, Australia with responsibility for the academic, pastoral, spiritual and co-curricular programs for Years 5 to 8 (Middle Years) at the Burke Hall Campus. 



Feature Image: Geralt – pixabay



Couros, G. (2015). The Innovator’s Mindset. San Diego, CA: Dave Burgess Consulting, Inc., p.79.

Ezard, T. (2017). GLUE. [Place of publication not identified]: LULU COM, pp.176-177.

Goleman, D. (2019). Why aren’t we more compassionate? [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2019].

Rebore, R. (2003). A Human relations approach to the practice of educational leadership. Boston:
Pearson Education, p.32.