Start Empathy

Empathy? An Ethos Born in the Staffroom

Post written by Vinciane Rycroft for Ashoka's Start Empathy Initiative, a whole child partner organization. Originally published in the Times Educational Supplement Pro.

Girl Reading Ian, aged 8, throws his younger brother Robin on the ground. Tears and screaming. It's the fifth or sixth time already today. (I'm strong; I'm superman!) Both of them have just lost their mother after two years of a very painful illness. As educators, we witness this very human story again and again, every day. It shows clearly the process of bullying. How do we respond?

Daniel Favre is a teacher, teacher trainer, and professor in both neuroscience and education. His work studies the process of youth violence. It also shows how supporting teachers in cultivating empathy can break the cycle of youth violence and improve maths results. His 50-hour programme trains educators to minimise students' fear of learning and dogmatic perceptions. Regardless of their subject, teachers learn six different skills: to clearly distinguish error and fault when giving feedback to students, encourage emotional literacy, facilitate team work, emphasize our common humanity, establish a nonviolent mode of authority, and strong personal listening skills and empathy.

"Empathy," says Favre, "is central to the whole programme, and our research shows that through training, most teachers' behaviour changes, and young people copy this change. Over a period of two years their empathy increases and their results in maths too."

It is tempting to design anti-bullying programmes for young people, and to forget to train teachers to develop their own emotional awareness and give them the space and the tools to take care of themselves. But what would we think of a school that teaches young people about recycling, without introducing a recycling scheme in each classroom?

Teachers can be resistant to applying these tools to themselves, though. At Mind with Heart teacher trainings on mindfulness and empathy, participants are very eager to get into the student pack. Even though the main objective of the training is clearly presented as enhancing personal well-being and efficacy, it takes teachers a while to sit back and think, "OK, this training is about coming home." By the end of the three days, teachers will say, "I've really understood how you can just be: be present, clear, and available. And how that in itself will be an example for my pupils." Of course, it is indispensable to have good classroom management strategies, but what will make sure these strategies work is how we are as teachers.

Last year Katherine Weare and Melanie Nind, professors at Southhampton University, reviewed 52 good quality reviews published since 1990 worldwide on promoting mental health and well-being and increasing social and emotional competence in schools. A main finding was that it is key to introduce a whole-school approach with a calm and respectful school ethos. "It is clear that effective prevention of violence and bullying needs to start with in-depth teacher education, so teachers address their own prejudices and learn how to help pupils work on theirs," says Weare.

There is also plenty of evidence that teachers can be trained very effectively to pass on these skills to students. One example is the work of the ERASE-Stress programme where Dr. Rony Berger from Tel Aviv University trains teachers in a programme on resilience and compassion in 12 countries around the world. The programme is then entirely delivered by teachers to young people dealing with the aftermath of terrorism and war. Research shows the efficacy of this programme in simultaneously reducing students' distress levels and their tendency to stereotype the other and behave aggressively.

"If you want to understand bullying in a school, begin by looking at what goes on in the staff room," says education consultant Nikkola Daniel, who has been working for seven years on mentoring, behaviour change, and emotional literacy. "The style of leadership in a school, the teaching climate, and the dynamics amongst staff are a good place to start. This is not to point the finger, but rather to understand that empathy and compassion need to start with oneself."

Many schools Nikkola has worked with had attempted to combat bullying without actually addressing the social and emotional training and developmental needs and behaviour patterns of staff. As educators and carers, we need to be at ease with ourselves—with the good, the bad, and the ugly—and to take the space to cultivate empathy, kindness, and compassion towards ourselves. Then we can extend our attention out to others, especially children and young people, in a truly authentic and meaningful way.

Vinciane Rycroft works with teenagers to investigate the topics of happiness, success, empathy, and sustainability. She is a cofounder of the education charity Mind with Heart and the main organiser behind the international conference Empathy and Compassion in Society, as well as the Youth Gathering "Don't you have to be ruthless to succeed in life?" that took place in London in November 2012. Rycroft has a Masters in the Science of Education, extensive experience as a project manager in the charity and education sector, and 15 years' experience of mindfulness, meditation, and compassion practices. This article also featured on the StartEmpathy Blog in April 2013.

Comments (1)


September 24, 2013

Dear Empathy,

As I am researching and studying more about the psychological aspects of bullying, this blog post opened my eyes to a different perspective of the educators. Bullies themselves struggle with personal challenges in their life, yet don’t have a proper way of expressing them. Thus, leading to violence and abuse. It is important for the parents and/or educators to be aware of these bullies and to learn how to deal with them in a healthy manner. I like the idea of teachers being taught different methods and styles to deal with bullies, and have them train to be a source of expression for these bullies in our schools today. Having educators and parents empathize with these bullies/victims could benefit the outcome of their future lives.

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