A Framework for Empathy: 3 steps leaders can follow to center educators’ Needs and Wants


Part 1 of this blog series digs into the results of a survey on what educators need and want from their professional learning experiences. Here in Part 2, we show you the framework we used to create and conduct the survey as well as provide you with ideas for implementing this framework in your own context. Special thanks to my colleague, Danielle Peck, who contributed significantly to this study and the writing of these blogs. 

What do educators want? What do they need? What ideas do they want to share with decision-makers?

If you work with or for educators, these questions are probably at the top of your mind. As a Professional Learning Specialist at Michigan Virtual, these questions are always at the top of my mind, too. 

Actually, my colleague Danielle and I have a specific question that drives our work most days: What do educators actually want out of their professional learning experiences? 

In our work, we lead professional learning, collaborate with educators and other educational organizations nationally and across the state, and build online courses that count towards SCECHs. We value the educators we work with, and we want to serve them in the best way possible. We strive to create awesome experiences that incite curiosity and honor educators’ time, knowledge, and expertise. 

As we were planning for the 2022-2023 school year, something occurred to us — we had never directly asked our audience of amazing educators what they wanted and needed.

That’s not to say that we never sought feedback. We always ask for feedback in our courses and at our presentations. We spend time every week reviewing and interpreting this information. Beyond that, we interact with learners every single day — working through problems of practice, answering questions, and reviewing assignments. 

Despite all of that, we felt like we did not have a full understanding of WHO our audience was or what they were looking for in terms of professional learning opportunities. We knew that if we wanted to create experiences that learners could engage with, that understanding was essential.

Using insight and inspiration from the book Street Data, our approach to how we wanted to understand our audience became clear. We needed empathy. 

We decided to reach out directly to our learners in order to find out who they are, what they want, and what they need — all with the intention of designing learning with them and not merely for them. 

Simply put, the framework we followed was a key quote from the book: “Listen deeply. Trust the people. Act on what you learn.” Here’s how we’ve implemented the framework and how you can implement it in with educators in your own work:

Listen Deeply

Here’s how we did it

To truly know our educators and design the professional learning they need, we decided that we need to start with information around WHO our learners are, not merely seek feedback after the fact. 

Together, we drafted a list of questions that we wanted to ask our learners. These questions spanned a variety of topics: we asked about educators’ location and position, preferences in modality and learning style, and choices in professional learning topics. Some of these questions were simple multiple-choice questions; however, we also created questions that allowed for open-ended responses. 

After we finalized our question list, we used Google Forms to create a survey. We invite you to view our survey so you can get a sense of what we asked and even use it as inspiration for your own educator survey. 

After distributing the survey to educators at a teaching conference and through our mailing list, we received 295 responses.  When we saw the initial results of the multiple-choice questions, which you can view here (pages 1 and 2), we weren’t exactly surprised. Many of the answers matched our expectations, which was affirming to see. Although we had never directly asked these questions before, it was helpful to know that our current interactions with learners had helped us understand and anticipate their preferences.

But this affirmation led to something unexpected: we had questions. Lots of them. Seeing learners’ responses, even though they matched our expectations, only increased our desire to know more about their needs and preferences. In order to listen more deeply, we dug deeper into the data.

Here’s how you can listen deeply, too

As you think about the educators you support, make decisions for, or create things for, consider:

What are you assuming about them vs. what have you asked them directly?

Even if you feel pretty confident about what educators are thinking or feeling, it’s worth asking them. Questions that might seem basic can yield answers that may surprise you. And even if you are not surprised at all by learners’ responses, you will get confirmation that you’re moving forward with the educators in your organization instead of making decisions for them. 

Remember: the data that we collected from our audience reflects, well, our audience here at Michigan Virtual. It’s fascinating data that might overlap with the data that your educators can provide you, but the only way you can determine the overlap is by talking to the educators in your context.

What do you want to know/need to know about them?

Take time to figure out exactly what questions you want to ask. We found it helpful to brainstorm questions together and then come back to these questions later to edit. If someone at your organization will be helping you to analyze data, we highly recommend making this person a part of the question drafting process, too. 

Provide opportunities to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. It can be really helpful to provide multiple choice questions because it’s easy to tally answers up and see broad trends. However, adding open-ended questions is crucial, too, because it offers the opportunity for educators to share divergent thinking and provide depth and nuance in their responses.

How can you ensure that as many educators as possible respond? How can you ensure that they feel safe in answering?

If you can either compensate educators for their extra time or give them time within their working or professional development hours, we recommend it. Offering time and/or compensation communicates that you care about their time and their opinion.

Educators shouldn’t have to question what you are going to do with the data you collect, and they should feel safe to share what they really feel. Be as clear as you can about what you plan to do with the results. If you can make your survey anonymous, that can help educators feel safe in providing their thoughts.

Trust the People

Here’s how we did it

At this point, we realized we had to make a very intentional decision to commit to this work . The initial numbers told us some information, but the goal was to lean into the story behind the data. To demonstrate our trust in educators, we had to spend time on deep analysis.

To do this, we teamed up with Nik McGehee of the Michigan Virtual Learning Research Institute to analyze educators’ open ended responses. We learned that before software could help reveal statistical trends, we needed to spend time sorting each educator’s responses by hand. This took a while, but was incredibly interesting and enlightening. Carefully reading through each learner’s ideas and opinions helped give us a much better understanding of the wants and needs of both individuals and the group as a whole. 

Once we sorted the responses, Nik was able to help us identify patterns in the data. We invite you to take a look (page 3) at the major themes that emerged in terms of what educators want and don’t want out of their professional learning experiences. 

In the process of identifying these themes, we were uncovering patterns and interesting contrasts which led us to ask even more questions about what they told us. To increase our empathy and gain greater clarity around the emerging questions we now had, we organized 1-on-1 interviews with learners to listen to their stories and experiences and ask questions about the themes that emerged from our analysis.

Throughout this process, we leaned into the numbers, spent quality time with the data, and listened to truly understand what our audience was telling us they wanted and needed. 

Here’s how you can trust the people, too

As you think about the educators you support, consider:

What actions can you take to demonstrate trust in the data you collect and the educators you support?

There’s a difference between asking for information and listening to folks’ answers and actually trusting those responses. How can you demonstrate or prove that trust? If your respondents were standing right in front of you asking to prove that you trust them, what would you say?

For us, it meant giving due diligence to the open-ended responses. They generously spent time providing those answers, so we spent time individually categorizing every single one of them. We came to know their responses intimately, rather than merely relying on machine learning to summarize their responses.

How can the data you collect expand your thinking and inspire curiosity?

For every bit of data you collect, consider: What further questions does this data raise for you? How can the data open up an opportunity for you to connect with the educators you work with?

The numbers you collect should give you plenty more questions to ask. Find ways to follow up and actually ask those questions. Follow-up surveys can work, but we found that conducting interviews gave us an opportunity to build relationships, demonstrate our trust even further, and hear stories that we never would have heard otherwise.

Act on What You Learn

Here’s how we did it

Our increased empathy from digging deeper into this work has caused us to truly consider what our audience has shared with us AND what this means for our work as we create professional development for educators.

Something that several of our interviewees told us is that they have had other opportunities to share their opinions about professional development but generally felt like their feedback did not lead to noticeable change. 

At Michigan Virtual, we have a core value to put our learners first. We believe in order to truly lean into this value, we must act on the information they’ve given us.

As a result, our team is working to act on what we learned and to dig deeper into what we uncovered.

    • We’re committed to helping educators reach their full professional potential, specifically by offering online learning opportunities that provide choice and flexibility in content, application, and schedule.

    • We’re striving to improve our clarity in communications, throughout courses, and in conversations with partners.

    • We’re planning to continue our conversations. Though the work for this particular project is complete, we plan to keep building empathy and bringing this information into our work.

This part of the process has been extremely important to us. We want to let our educators know that their ideas matter and make a difference. 

Here’s how you can act on what you learn, too

As you reflect on your work or any data you have collected from the educators you support, consider:

How will you commit to putting those ideas into action?

Based on what you learned, what concrete actions are you going to take tomorrow? Next week/month/year? Your action plan should be clear and specific.

Let the educators you work with know what you learned from your research and what you plan to do with what you learned. As we mentioned, educators often feel that their feedback does not actually lead to change. You can make a difference by showing them that their opinions matter. 

What ideas need more attention?

This framework for empathy is a circular rather than a linear process.  When you’ve reached the “end” of a feedback cycle, consider what you’d change about your process. Write these ideas down and incorporate them the next time that you ask educators for their ideas and opinions. To increase transparency, you can let educators know about the changes you plan to make to how you collect feedback and why you’re making those changes.

Keep lines of communication open. When you tell educators about the actions you plan to take, provide a way for them to give feedback, ask questions, and offer ideas and suggestions. 

Final Thoughts

The work of listening deeply, trusting the people, and acting on what you learn takes time, care, and commitment. We believe it is completely worth it. In fact, this is one of the most meaningful projects that we’ve ever engaged in. It has allowed us to deepen our empathy and validate the needs and wants of the amazing educators that learn with us.

We are confident that you can succeed in following this framework for empathy, too. If you have any ideas, questions, or would just like to discuss this project further, we would love to hear from you.

Picture of Anne Perez

Anne Perez

Anne’s experiences in diverse classroom settings have shaped her desire to continuously learn with and from others. She enjoys mentoring educators, problem-solving curriculum issues, and learning best practices, so her work with the Professional Learning Specialists team puts her passion into daily practice. At home, Anne and her husband have three children who keep their evenings full of sports practices and visits to the playground.

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