One of the (many) reasons I love teaching English – in particular, literature – is because it’s all about (to use the vernacular) ‘the feels’. To me, literature IS humanity; it’s sex and drugs and rock and roll – well, at A level it is. Seriously, engaging with literature requires oodles of empathy. To paraphrase my beloved Atticus Finch, we need to climb into someone else’s skin, walk in someone else’s shoes and see things from their point of view.
I pride myself on my (extensive) shoe collection, and my ability to metaphorically step into the footwear/skin of others. I’m a people person – a people pleaser – and I ALWAYS try to see things from someone else’s point of view. I am genuinely moved by the plight of some of our students who dread the Christmas holidays, or those for whom the six week summer hiatus from school is just too much. Ironically, these are often the students who can present us with the most behavioural challenges: they don’t want to be here but they don’t want to be away from here! Those empathy neurons really have to be firing on all cylinders to get your head around that.
Whilst I may be empathied-up from a pastoral point of view, I’ve been reflecting recently on how much I empathise (or not) with our students as learners. It’s all too easy to become comfortable within the confines of our subject areas, to rise to the challenge of being ‘teacher as expert’, but what happens when we try out a different subject? When we empathise with our learners who experience five different lessons, rooms, subjects, teaching styles within a six hour period, how do we really feel?
Last academic year, my collaborative learning team and I sat in Paul Cary’s tech room on a sunny afternoon and let him teach us how to use CAD to make a small, Perspex key fob.
I HATED IT.
I couldn’t keep up. There were too many instructions and too many things I didn’t understand. I hated the fact that Donna Taylor and Katie Greaves excelled at it and I didn’t. Mr Cary was patient, encouraging and kind but I couldn’t shake off my resentment.
Flash-forward to last term and a whole-staff numeracy session in the school hall. Elin ‘performed’ what can only be described as wizardry with numbers. My much-grafted for B grade GCSE felt like a lifetime ago. I wanted to retreat into my safe world of semi colons and personification.
It was an important moment for me professionally. I really don’t consider how our students feel as LEARNERS nearly half as much as I consider how they feel as PEOPLE. Whilst I am fully on-board with challenge, determination and building resilience, sometimes, I need to step back into their school shoes, climb into their skin. My brilliant subject is complex and challenging; it requires secure and confident literacy skills AND emotional intelligence. How often do I assume a student has simply not listened or tried or is just being lazy when they are genuinely stuck?
I’m making it one of my personal goals this year to walk in their shoes, live in their skin, however uncomfortable that may be: we might all learn something from it and Atticus would be proud.
Katy Wayne, English.