The empathy gap

Jonathan is baffled.

Jonathan doesn’t teach Freddie but he has spoken with him at length, one-to-one. Jonathan is perhaps a school counsellor or a social worker or a senior manager.

Freddie is troubled. His father visits the home unpredictably. When he does turn up, Freddie’s father is usually drunk and he beats Freddie and his mum. Freddie’s mum is a mess and often can’t get out of bed in the morning, leaving Freddie to organise breakfast for his younger siblings and get them ready for school.

Aisha is Freddie’s English teacher. Jonathan is baffled because twice this term, Aisha has sent Freddie out of class. A third time, Freddie wouldn’t leave and so Aisha called for a senior member of staff to remove him. Doesn’t Aisha understand Freddie’s background, what he’s going through?

Aisha does not understand Freddie as well as Jonathan, no. She has not had the long conversations with him that Jonathan has had. But she is aware of the domestic abuse and that Freddie has a lot on his plate. There is an empathy gap here but where is it? Is Aisha failing to empathise with Freddie or is Jonathan failing to empathise with Aisha?

There are 23 students in Aisha’s English class and she wants to teach them English, not because she is in fear of missing targets on standardised tests mandated by the government but because that is her job. When Freddie is in the classroom, he makes this very hard. He is openly disrespectful and won’t follow instructions. Aisha has hardened a little since she first started teaching and so she can cope with that. Unfortunately, she can’t cope with the fact that Freddie regular gets out of his seat and wanders around the room, taking other students’ belongings, teasing them and starting arguments.

Freddie does not take kindly to anyone trying to lay down the law. Which is understandable.

Perhaps Aisha needs to be a little more creative. If she made the work engaging enough then perhaps Freddie would join in. The problem is that Freddie doesn’t like reading and writing which are pretty fundamental in English. He knows that he has not mastered these skills and being asked to read or write makes him feel stupid. Perhaps there is a topic so pertinent, so engaging, that Freddie would get over this and become involved. Certainly, Freddie sometimes contributes thoughtfully to classroom discussion. But it’s the reading and writing that he doesn’t like so motivating him to do those things, day after day is going to be pretty hard.

But there are things that Freddie enjoys doing. He likes drawing and so if Aisha gives him some poster work to do then he won’t be as disruptive. Perhaps he needs options. Perhaps he needs to be able to choose to record his voice on a mobile phone instead of writing. If we redefine literacy to include things other than literacy then we can still call these activities ‘literacy’.

After all, reading and writing are essential but isn’t it even more important with such a troubled child to focus on including him? Isn’t it more important to treat him with human kindness and respect, to acknowledge his troubles, to smile at him? Isn’t this what he most needs to learn; that humans can be nice?

Except that Freddie’s now not doing any reading and writing. How is he going to improve at these things if he’s not practising them? And if he doesn’t improve then he’s going to fall further and further behind his peers and then these activities will make him feel even more stupid and he will be even less inclined to engage in them. In fact, it’s this process that caused the trouble in the first place.

Perhaps we should take him out of class for a little intensive support. He might be more receptive to reading and writing if his lack of skill is not apparent to his peers. But that’s not inclusion.

When you think about it, asking Freddie to be included in Aisha’s English lesson is a bit like going to a soccer coach and asking her to include a player in the team who constantly handles the ball and swears at other players. To be part of a group you need to accept some of the group norms. If there are no group norms – if all behaviours are allowed – then what exactly are you being included in? And how does that help?

Mass education was not invented as a means for socialising children. If it had been then you would have to admit that it is extraordinarily badly designed. If teachers are meant to be social workers then the caseload is far too high. And contrary to popular opinion, mass education also wasn’t invented purely to produce factory workers. It came about at a time when many jobs did not require literacy. Instead, it was partly an experiment in social improvement; to ensure that the newly enfranchised working classes could be informed when exercising their democratic responsibilities. In order to do this, they needed to be able to read and write. They needed access to culture and protection from being swindled. That is what education is for; to pass on this liberating knowledge. That is why Aisha gets up in the morning.

Jonathan doesn’t understand that.

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10 Comments on “The empathy gap”

  1. Emma says:

    This is so spot on it makes me feel both sad and relieved that someone has articulated it

  2. howardat58 says:

    “Richard spent 6 years in primary school and 4 or 5 years in secondary school, and left not knowing how to read. He helped his dad on the farm, and soon got himself an old motor cycle. It soon became apparent that to fix the bike you needed instructions, so he got the manual, and taught himself to read in 3 months.” A true story, he lived just down the road from my house.

  3. Why is being taken out of the classroom for intensive support not inclusion? Included in the right to an education, preparation for mainstream life, specialist input to increase chances of participation when an adult? Having intensive support IS inclusion. Freddie is then being included in the plan and education for successful and independent adulthood. Sticking him in a classroom with peers he cannot cope with and a teacher he cannot understand is isolation, not inclusion.

  4. Thanks Greg. I like this story. Could be taken further of course, but it’s still a valuable opening to a conversation on different perspectives in education.

  5. woof272 says:

    This example of behaviour happens in primary all the time. Teachers generally do their best to understand and include disruptive pupils in all lessons; however the 29 others in the class are put at risk of feeling intimidated by difficult and unruly behaviour as well as loosing concentration on their own stream of creativity. I can see both sides, what is the answer?

  6. Mel says:

    This reflects so many aspects of my day it has made me cry. I sincerely love your work.


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