The (tough) Empathy Gap: beyond the data.

14 Oct 2016


“I’ve learned that everyone has a rucksack. The world is full of of people carrying around a toxic narrative, pulled down by a sadness or a grief that they don’t know how to share, and all of us are hiding it from each other.” Cathy Rentzenbrink ‘The Last Act of Love’

I set myself a lofty target at the start of the year: to read 52 books in the year. One a week? No problem! The reality: not as seamless as it sounds (just ask my suffering wife!) Yet in the midst of marital breakdown and sleep deprivation there are constant validations and moments that remind me why making the time to read is so important. This week’s novel (forty one) was one of those: ‘Cathy Rentzenbrink’s’ ‘The Last Act of Love’.  I went to watch her speak at the Durham book festival and was hugely touched by her honesty, vulnerability and passion.  Cathy’s brother was hit by a car when he was sixteen and spent the next eight years seriously ill with brain damage, never walking or talking again. The novel attempts to make sense of this experience and what was left behind by his death.

I’m not sure if anything has taught me more about empathy or perspective, or indeed the nature of some of experiences that people have gone through. A stunning and hugely moving read.

The real problem with the reading challenge is that work and life often rudely interrupt. This week I was also asked to help with a workshop for our teacher day next week: ‘Information driven Teaching’, with the spectacular subtitle of ‘Ice in the head, love in the heart, fire in the belly’. The idea is to look at the host of information we have as teachers and see how this impacts decisions we make in the classroom. My responsibility: the ‘love in the heart’ section. Obviously not fulfilling any idealistic, overly emotional English teacher cliches there then!

When life and reading combine beautifully: ‘love in the heart’ is surely about empathy and perspective and its role in the classroom. But I am going to add a cheeky adjective: tough empathy and tough love. It is this that can really help build respect and positive relationships in the classroom.

Labels seem to be everywhere at the moment: PP, SEN, High attainers, value added, national averages, predicted grade, below target, above target.  Performance related pay has also gone some way in morphing teaching into a spreadsheet data driven business. We need information and data, of course we do, and I am in no way advocating disregarding it. It has to inform our decisions, our interactions, our planning. Yet, in the anxiety of all this information wrestling in our tired teacher heads, the individual and their experience is often lost. We forget who is sitting before us, a group of thirty mini adults – each also wrestling with their own life outside the classrooms.

We are not surrogate therapists or indeed, surrogate parents.  Yet, as another one of the list this year, Daniel Goleman’s ‘Emotional Intelligence’ (week eleven, if you are interested!) puts it, without empathy a person is “emotionally tone deaf”. And lets be honest – not an effective teacher. Empathy is an essential feature of building relationships, and building positive relationships will help enable our students to learn. Intellectual development and emotional development come hand in hand. We therefore need to hone and remind ourselves of the importance of the empathetic mindset.

Slightly fearfully I then did this empathy test to assess my own empathetic capacity: A fascinating experiment for us teachers, it was created by the Neuropsychologist Simon Baron-Cohen. You are shown 36 pairs of eyes and have to choose from four words that best describes what each person is thinking of feeling.  Eyes are our substance, we insist they look at ours while we speak, but can we discern how they are really feeling? Can we read the emotions that will make such a difference to their ability to learn?

My empathy adventure continued, I then took a delightful perusal around the first ever empathy museum:, as intriguing as it sounds! A wonderful idea in it is the ‘A mile in my shoes’ in which you literally walk a mile in someone’s shoes who have had a range of experiences.

While I may find myself in bother if I stole my student’s shoes, I did then meet with the head of Year 11 to talk about some of the issues impacting our young people in this pressured year. A fifteen minute conversation was enough to open my eyes to the reality of just some of the things impacting the diverse range of young people in our school environment. It was a conversation that moved me and did genuinely impact how I behaved throughout the day. I was also filled with respect for the wonderful job she does, and the evident care she has for students.

What unites the world of Cathy Rentzenbrink with the experiences of some of the students who enter our classrooms? Neither wants us to feel sorry for them: pointless, futile and condescending. What perhaps both are looking for is a sense of understanding, an awareness of issues that can then inform our decisions and actions. Having some sense of what someone has experienced is not to elicit pity: rather it is something that we need to acknowledge may influence their behaviour.  We cannot form any relationship without a sense of understanding. What does tough empathy involve in our classrooms? How can we ensure that this empathy does not lower expectations, but rather frames the success for that individual?

I would argue it involves maintaining high expectations of what that young person can achieve: ensuring that they recognise that in our space they are here to learn and achieve their best. It involves listening: the genuine art form of listening properly. Listening to a student will help build relationships based on understanding, it shows them that we care about them as individuals. It will enable us to understand the reality of their behaviour or their lack of understanding and then take positive steps to help. It shows them that we know they are not just a mark on a spreadsheet, a clog in a machine of examination results.

It involves role modelling the skills that they may not see elsewhere: clarity, calmness, warmth, direction. It is in providing a consistency: an emotionally safe environment that they can feel nurtured to succeed in. It involves communication: taking the time to have a brief conversation in lessons, showing that we care and that we value their experiences.  It is in remembering things about them as individuals, and being there to talk about them if they want to. It involves moving away from punitive punishments without reason, balancing this with compassion and understanding. Behaviour management needs to be consistent, of course, but it also needs to be empathetic.

So many young people are walking around with a “rucksack” a “toxic narrative” that impacts them more than we can possibly imagine.  Like us as adults they are often hiding it behind a mask, a mask that will often slip and impact their ability to learn in our classrooms. Remembering the humanity involved and allowing that to influence how we seek to build a relationship is perhaps what teaching with love and tough empathy really is.

Back to the list: week thirty was a terrific biography of Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt: ‘No Ordinary Time’ by Doris Kearns Goodwin.  I will leave the wonderfully empathetic and admirable figure of Eleanor Roosevelt with the final words:



Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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