Empathy Interviews for Reflective Growth

Have you ever looked at a seashell and noticed the repeating pattern? What can we learn from these iterative images in nature for the benefit of improving teacher practice? As teacher-leaders, we naturally reflect on learning to build our practice and encourage others to do the same. Some do this in writing a journal, a blog, or a book, but have you tried this reflective practice with another person willing to listen and just let you speak? If you haven’t had an empathy interview, you’re in for a treat.

If you study the cross-section of a nautilus shell, you see the ever-increasing curve that shows the growth of the sea creature.  Nature demonstrates a self-similar code that repeats itself at every scale. This natural theme can also be seen in trees, rivers, waves, and mountains. In coaching, we want to continue using strategies that help teachers and students see their growth and document their accomplishments.

I learned about empathy interviews in a recent graduate course. According to the website LearningForward.org, these are “one-on-one conversations that use open-ended questions to elicit stories about specific experiences that help uncover unacknowledged needs.”  Yes, uncover unacknowledged needs. I thought this might be a good answer to a problem.

I sensed my 20 teachers were becoming increasingly frustrated with the many initiatives we were expected to embrace, and I needed to establish a mutually beneficial direction. I started by writing down these questions:

  • What is working well in your classroom?
  • What area is challenging?
  • In what activity do you have the most fun?
  • During what activity do the students see the most growth? 
  • What is one thing we could improve upon in the ELA department at our school?

Because I knew the direction and goal were my focus, the critical question I needed to reach in each interview was, “What do you see as a need for us to improve?” The other questions were for building rapport and community, but I suspected I could use the improvement data to set our direction. 

How do you go about doing the interviews? I set up appointments with my teachers informally. Once we sat comfortably in a quiet place, I asked if they minded if I took notes. With my pen and pad of paper in hand, I asked the open-ended questions; I watched their body language and followed up with others if they had more to say. I allowed each individual ample space to answer, and I asked just one question at a time. After each interview, I typed a summary of their responses in a spreadsheet, documenting the teachers’ names, grade levels, and salient points.

I was in the middle of conducting these interviews when I took a break to attend Jim Knight’s conference. His message of dialogical coaching in partnership resonated with me. This theme of building relationships of equality, where thinking is done together and neither the teacher nor the coach is expected to withhold their ideas, reinforced what I already knew (Knight, 2022). The conference empowered my practice as he provided tips for asking better questions and attending to empathic listening.  He reinforced the idea of not interrupting or judging. He said to give plenty of wait time and let go of control. Just let the teacher talk (Knight, 2022).

I returned from the conference energized to continue the interviews and record our meeting notes in summaries. Once completed, we met in small groups to analyze the notes to find a common thread. I explained where this all came from and why we were doing it. I had removed their names, but just like the students, they were eager to find their own voices within the summaries. Before long, teachers at every grade level could see that they had each identified vocabulary as an area of need. Twenty teachers and one area of need. I saw this as colossal progress. The empathy interviews, summaries, and subsequent discussions produced answers we could actively address together. Next year we will focus on vocabulary and use that as a lens for all professional development. We will scrutinize the strategies against the PLC questions:


Empathy interviews can take a different route, but listening is the key. After a tragedy this spring, I wanted to know how we could improve resiliency. Did taking a leadership role have an impact? What type of leadership was most important in our school and district? My questions became:

  • What was your path to leadership like?
  • When did you first consider yourself a leader?
  • What are the three most essential traits of a leader?
  • How can we build our capacity for resiliency?

After the Jim Knight conference and my previous experience, I knew to attend more to the person than to the questions.  I was most surprised to learn that out of the 20 leaders I interviewed, from students to superintendents, 15 of them indicated that LISTENING was the most important trait a leader could have. 

Your purpose for conducting interviews may be different. Teachers are in the business of improving, and they want to replicate the strategies that demonstrate growth. Taking the time to reflect protects this practice of growth. Trees have their branches, and even the Japanese artist, Houksai’s The Great Wave has a self-similar form. Just like the Mandelbrot set of fractals that go on continuously into infinity, teachers’ reflective experiences can refine and expand their practice to make learning demonstrable.


Knight, J. (2022). A framework for instructional coaching: the seven success factors, a participant guide. Instructional Coaching Group. www.instructionalcoaching.com

About the Author

Julia Gordon is an instructional coach at Southside Middle School in Manchester, NH with more than 30 years of classroom experience.