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Sunderland Repository records the research produced by the University of Sunderland including practice-based research and theses.

Teachers as moral models: the role of empathy in the relationships between teachers and their pupils

Cooper, Bridget (2002) Teachers as moral models: the role of empathy in the relationships between teachers and their pupils. Doctoral thesis, Leeds Metropolitan University.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)


This thesis examines the concept of teachers acting as moral models in education and how the role of empathy in teacher-pupil relationships plays a part in this process. In particular it examines how teachers understood these issues and whether those same understandings could be seen at work in classroom practice. The thesis integrates the traditional literature in this field with recent research into neuroscience. This combination highlights the effect of emotion on engagement in learning, decision-making and a sense of attachment and responsibility in interaction and relationships.

Following a pilot study and exploratory work with both methodology and subject, grounded theory was chosen as the methodology and a conceptual framework was created from the data. Empathic teachers and student teachers were interviewed and observed, in different contexts in both primary and secondary phases, including teachers who support special needs students and students of English as another Language.

The thesis presents a detailed exposition and classification of empathy at work in teaching and learning. Empathy is revealed as a highly complex phenomenon, which develops over time and with frequency of interaction and which is highly dependent on the actors and the context of the interaction. The thesis confirms and expands the powerful effects of profound empathy on self-esteem, relationships and learning. Empathic teachers are revealed as highly moral individuals who attach themselves mentally and emotionally to their pupils generating similar responses in return, in effect modelling and evoking morality in their personal interactions with pupils and colleagues. Positive personal interaction supports high quality learning, engagement and behaviour in valuing relationships. This has implications for both face to face and e-learning.

However, the constraints of class size, time, curriculum, policy and management distort the moral model offered by teachers. These constraints are conditioned to a large extent by economic and competitive considerations. The thesis identifies a phenomenon entitled functional empathy, which teachers use to create mental connections with whole classes. Functional empathy is of a lower moral order and in conjunction with shallow levels of personal empathy and feigned empathy has implications for the moral model offered to large numbers of students, throughout their education. The thesis therefore has significant implications for the moral order in general.

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Depositing User: Bridget Cooper


Item ID: 6869
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Catalogue record

Date Deposited: 13 Jan 2017 16:23
Last Modified: 02 Jul 2019 09:11


Author: Bridget Cooper

University Divisions

Centre for Pedagogy
Collections > Theses
Faculty of Education and Society > School of Education



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