Who is your favourite teacher or educator? We all remember fondly the great teacher we had at school, who had the kindness to give us that little extra self-confidence. What about now? Who do you look up to?
In the run-up to Anti-Bullying Week. and as today is World Kindness Day I asked three educators whom I look up to about how to teach empathy and to share their top tips.
Mary Gordon developed an award-winning programme for primary school children in which the teacher is depicted as a baby, Canada
Teaching empathy is experiential. There is no flash card for empathy, it does not develop like that. You have to see it, to experience it, so we need to teach with empathy. My main advice to teachers is very simple: "Let's be people, human beings, before we are teachers."
And that starts with taking care of ourselves. Teachers are incredibly hard on themselves, in the same way that parents are hard on themselves. People don't appreciate how emotionally exhausting teaching is. So my first advice is really love yourself. Also, we might find that when we teach with empathy, we are less exhausted, because as we are connecting with students, they will behave differently, and it will reduce stress in the classroom.
We're so guarded as teachers not to seem weak or out of the control. Sometimes we just need to allow ourselves to say: "The way I'm teaching is not getting through, let me try another way. How about this? Is this working? Thank you for helping me to find a good way to teach." As a primary school teacher I used to review the day with the class and be honest: "We've had a little difficulty today with such and such. How can we do this differently tomorrow?" When you do this, you're showing your humanity.
Instead of being so driven by school results, we should really be measuring what we treasure. More than the marks in English, it's the happiness in the class room that counts. If you can show a child how to fail well, and pick themselves up and carry on, that the greatest favour you can do to them.
Katherine Weare is a professor of education at Southampton University, England
Teaching is a tough job and policy makers need to balance their rightful concern with test scores, inspections and accountability with an empathetic and mindful concern for staff wellbeing.
An effective school ethos puts warmth and mutually respectful communication and relationships with staff, pupils and parents at the heart, takes an inclusive approach which values all types of pupil, encourages pupils to think for themselves and move towards autonomy and self reliance, has high and positive expectations for all, and sets in place appropriate boundaries so that all feel safe. Achieving this balance is not easy, and effective implementation needs clear goals, positive leadership, solid staff development, expert support, and the involvement of pupils and parents so their voices can be heard.
In this whole process, the development of mindfulness is proving to be a valuable tool and a key which unlocks many doors. Mindfulness refers to the ability to
focus on what is happening in the present moment rather than ruminating on the past or worrying about the future, and with curiosity and kindness rather than critical and negative judgment.
Most of us do not do this automatically, so learning it explicitly as a life skill through courses and lessons in which we learn some simple mindfulness practices can be invaluable. Learning to be more mindful has been shown to improve self-awareness, self-regard, empathy, wellbeing, and the ability to cope with stress and pressure with calmness and equanimity. Some schools are starting to teach mindfulness to their staff and pupils, and the research evidence is showing clear and demonstrable beneficial effects.
We need particularly to be self-aware enough to catch the natural inclination to empathise most with pupils, and parents, most like ourselves and see the rest as irrational and/or bad, thus through punitive responses unwittingly contributing to the cycle of failure and alienation from school of the children we claim to want to help.
It is interesting that bullies are often well liked by teachers as they often have high self-esteem and are outgoing. Unless we know this we can again unwittingly add to the problem.
Rony Berger trains teachers to use a resiliency programme for children who are the victims of war, terrorism and natural disaster, Tel Aviv University
Though many people consider cultivating empathy the key factor in reducing violence and curbing bullying behaviour, based on my experience and research, it is essential but not sufficient. With that in mind, I believe teaching empathy is an ongoing process that builds on the following:
• Be yourself and know yourself. Being a genuine and authentic human being is a must for every teacher. Self-awareness is also a prerequisite for being becoming an empathetic teacher and a role model.
• Express your feelings. Teach feeling vocabulary by reflecting them in a respectful but accurate manner.
• Explain your feelings and concomitant behaviours, teach kids perspective-taking and explain why you experience them.
• Practice what you preach. Show empathy and love towards your pupils as well as towards others.
• Develop value orientation. Spell out the values underlying your behaviours and stress their importance.
• Provide children with an opportunity to engage in empathic pro-social behaviour. Start with small manageable opportunities that they are likely to succeed in and that are ecologically relevant, such as helping teachers or peers during school, sports or music.
• Celebrate pro-social behaviour. Recognition for pro-social behaviour is as important as academic or talent recognition. Find ways to value it.
Vinciane Rycroft is an educator specialising in sustainable development. She is a co-founder of Mind with Heart
Mary Gordon, Katherine Weare and Rony Berger will be at the Empathy and Compassion in Society conference for the public sector in London next week
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