Teaching Tuesday: What Is the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy?

Dr. Paul L. Danuser, Faculty, College of Education

Female student working at desk in classroom feeling pain and suffering

Hello again, and thank you for continuing to read my stories. Maybe this is the first time you have come across my writing.  If so, welcome!  I hope you enjoy what I have been sharing with you. I should preface my posts by reminding you I am not writing these articles from a scholarly perspective. I can do that, but I have found most people want to learn about this noble profession by hearing the stories and experiences from those who have been in the field for a while. Well, I have been in the field for a while!  

This is my 41st year in the classroom, which means I am now teaching into my fifth decade. When I was the age of most of our readers, I used to think 30 was old. Then I thought 40 was old, and 50, and, gulp, 60! Now that I am in my 60s, I see how foolish I was then. I love being this age, as it means God has allowed me to be an influence in about 10,000 students’ lives, and I also get to be Papa to two beautiful and wonderful grandsons. So, I humbly thank you for taking your valuable time to read my stories. Please let me know what you think!

Dealing With Pain and Suffering

I often tell my students if they are in this profession long enough (and we all hope they will be), they will come across trauma and other issues that cause pain and suffering for themselves, their families, their students, their colleagues, and their students’ families and friends. It is a natural part of being a human being in a sinful and imperfect world. 

In the 40 years I have been working with students, I have had several die from various causes such as cancer, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (yes, that is a thing unfortunately), car and motorcycle accidents, and even suicide. The death of a student is difficult to deal with for many obvious reasons, but knowing in advance this could be something you experience may be a help in knowing how to cope with the suddenness of loss.

I often tell the story of one of the cases I will always remember. For the sake of privacy, I will refer to a student of mine who died in a motorcycle accident as "Eddie." First of all, I have to preface the story with what happened earlier that day.  I was teaching my senior English class right before lunch, and I noticed a student was on his cell phone. With my usual wit and good humor, rather than simply asking Eddie to please put his cell phone away, I said something snarky like, “Hey, Eddie, is our conversation about literature getting in the way of your phone call?” Without missing a beat, Eddie turned from his phone and said, “Frankly, Mr. D., I couldn’t give a >>>> about your discussion.” 

I quietly asked Eddie to step outside with me, and his classmates were likely expecting to hear some hollering and the like. I had known Eddie since coaching him in freshman basketball the summer before his first year of high school, and this was completely out of the ordinary for him. I asked him what that was about. He apologized and told me he was talking with his grandma, and her house had been broken into. 

I apologized right back to him and said he should get back on the phone with his grandma and to let me know if there was anything I could do. The class ended, and the kids went to lunch. Immediately after lunch, and right before my next class, one of the students from that class said she talked with Eddie during lunch, and he said everything between us was fine, and he even went so far as to tell “Rosemary” that I was his favorite teacher.

That evening, I received a phone call from my department chair who told me Eddie had been killed in a motorcycle accident and that the next day my classroom would be used as a place for his classmates and friends to come and try to deal with this sudden and tragic loss. Needless to say, it was one of the most difficult days of my 40-year teaching career. My principal had even talked with me before I got into my classroom and asked me how I was doing. 

Sympathizing With Students

He said I could pray with the students (this was at a large public high school), I could hug my students, but I couldn’t cry. I did hold the tears in until I went home that night, but it was tough. I had even packed a couple of extra shirts that day, as students cried through two shirts I was wearing. Is that the perfect way to deal with the day? I don’t  know, but it was the way to try to help hundreds of kids try to cope with the loss of a classmate and friend.  A few days later, at his funeral, Eddie’s mom had me read a letter Eddie had written about his school, his friends, and his favorite teacher. Again, it was a truly difficult day.

Since then, I have been around several other families and friends when loved ones have died. Sometimes we celebrate a life well lived, and sometimes we wonder how something like this could happen to someone so young or someone with so much to offer. I have also had the chance to speak with colleagues about how they handle the death of a student. 

When this first occurs, feelings of sympathy for those who have lost someone special come to the forefront. When it is a shared experience, the feelings of empathy kick in, as now we have a sense of what has happened and how to deal with the loss. I don’t have all the answers. Sometimes this is a matter of faith and how we deal with the dynamics of life and death. 

When it is a person of faith, we can celebrate that he is with his Lord and Savior in Paradise, and that is a wonderful blessing. I anticipate having to deal with this again at some point, as even recently here at GCU we have all felt the pangs of sudden death. It is never easy, but if we are able to offer comfort and compassion to the families and friends of those whose lives are lost, then we are doing the best we can, and we can feel the blessings to help with our own pain as well.

I would love to hear what you think. If you have your own stories to share or need someone to speak with, I invite you to reach out anytime. Sometimes it helps to talk and grieve, and it would be a blessing to offer that to you. You can reach me at paul.danuser@gcu.eduThank you and may God bless you and keep you!

Earning your teaching degree can lead to an incredibly rewarding career that models and teaches valuable characteristics such as empathy, compassion and understanding. Consider earning a teaching degree from Grand Canyon University. Any teaching degree will prepare you to bring deep levels of understanding and connection to the students in your classroom. 


Approved by the Assistant Dean for the College of Education on Dec. 15, 2022.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.