How schools can focus on empathy in 2021

After a difficult year, it is important to prioritise empathy - Matt Seddon explains how his school plans to do this

Matt Seddon

Coronavirus: How schools can focus on empathy

Imagine the scene: it is Monday morning. You arrive early to work after a disrupted weekend, mostly spent crafting a response to guidance received at 3pm on Friday. Why is it always 3pm on a Friday?

Before even reaching your desk, you have fielded a call from a distressed parent about university admissions and supported a Year 11 who is struggling with anxiety during lockdown. Finally, you open your inbox and are greeted by an all-caps assault from a colleague.

After the weekend you’ve had, the temptation to return fire must be strong. However, after the year we’ve all had, we just need to stop, pause and try to put ourselves in the shoes of others in our community. Every single one of us has had a unique and challenging experience.

Coronavirus: Prioritising empathy in schools

The challenges of the past year have prompted us to focus on empathy over the coming months. Not just in the classroom, but across the whole school. 

1. Supporting staff

After a year spent relearning their jobs and adapting to new methods of teaching and collaborating, teachers and school staff have demonstrated their great adaptability. However, we need to recognise that this has impacted on them in many different ways.

There will be colleagues who have been struggling in their apartments, missing the day-to-day support of their teammates. There will be staff who haven’t seen their families in over a year due to travel restrictions.

Here are three tips for supporting staff:

Listen and follow up

Don’t just grab a quick coffee at break time, but spent time listening to them. How can you understand the situation of a colleague if you don’t stop to ask how they are doing and listen to the response? Formal questionnaires are important, but they are meaningless if we do not genuinely follow up afterwards to support.

Keep changes to a minimum

At a time when so much is out of our control, we should control what we can and make minimal changes. We all build our personal situations around work routines. The more we can avoid unnecessary changes at work, the better we show understanding of our staff’s personal challenges.

Show a willingness to be flexible

Many of our current circumstances just don't fit within the normal frameworks that we have created. Whilst consistency should be aimed for, be open and transparent about the fact that wellbeing is a priority. Showing that you are willing and able to adapt for extenuating circumstances will build trust within your staff.

2. Supporting parents

Parents have also had to discover new ways to do their jobs – both their professional job and their full-time parenting one, too.

They have been required to work from home whilst juggling home schooling. Many have lost their livelihoods and family members have passed away. At a time when reasons for optimism have been in short supply, it is natural for a parent to place so much hope for the future on their child.

Here are three tips for supporting parents:

​​​​​​​Provide a personal touch

Could you regularly phone every family in your community to listen? Whether through a dedicated pastoral team or spread throughout the staff, the level of understanding that can be gained through this is remarkable. If you can really understand their circumstances, then you are best placed to navigate the inevitable challenges you will face.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Change the tone

All schools have their usual newsletters and formal ways to communicate – but can a greater level of empathy be portrayed in a very personal way outside of the normal channels? During these times, parents really want to hear our voice. Could you consider sending out a series of short videos rather than letters?

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Assume nothing

It’s helpful to remember that most parents don’t talk about education all day or follow the same Twitter feeds that we do. Regularly sending out updates from government and examination boards can be helpful.

3. Supporting students

I think that we would all agree that adolescence is a difficult time. Despite feeling nearly grown up, teenagers are not quite there yet.

Areas of life that are out of their control result in anger and frustration. It is probably safe to assume that this is being amplified to extremes in the current context. Really understanding this is essential if we are to harness our students' potential.

Here are three tips for supporting students:

​​​​​​​Easy on assessment

Consider where you can remove the perception of "high-stakes". Students in examination years currently feel anxious that everything they do will be used towards teacher-assessed grades. It has the potential to feel like they are taking a year's worth of formal examinations. Is testing necessary at all with younger students right now? Can we find a better way of assessing their learning?

Offer social opportunities

Students love going to school to see their friends. We should remember that this has been taken away from them just as much as their time in the classroom. Can we create social opportunities such as online extracurricular activities, discussion and debate groups or house competitions?

In addition to this, look at ways in which you can give your students more agency. Whilst they may not be able to work physically yet, there is much that can be done remotely. Giving students a voice and a platform on which to support their communities is incredibly powerful.

Teach empathy

If we want to create empathetic leaders of the future, then we need to teach our children how to be empathetic. Can you create space to teach it explicitly or are you able to identify places in the curriculum for empathetic character analysis in literature or history?

Matthew Seddon is deputy head of senior school at Kellett School – The British International School in Hong Kong

Empathy Week (22-26 Feb) is an invitation for young people across the world to put empathy into action, developing the skills of leadership and resilience along the way. Register your school here.  

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