03 Jul
  • By Sam Hayward
  • Cause in

Teaching With Empathy

Teaching With Empathy

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”- Leo Buscaglia

I’m going to be honest with you, over this lockdown period I’ve been pretty cynical. One moment it seems the world is uniting, joining forces despite the chaos around us to uplift one another, and the next it feels we are more separate than ever before.

My lockdown playlists has included the likes of Destiny child’s Survivor and what doesn’t kill you by Kelly Clarkson, and on other days Supertramp’s Give a little bit is echoing through my apartment as a reminder to play my part and help those in need during this difficult time.

When Blake the Co-founder of Brownie Points asked me to interview a teacher at the French School in Cape Town about the impact empathy has played in their school I jumped for joy and turned the ‘pay rent’ reminder on mute to focus on the task at hand.

After just 3 minutes into my conversation with Celine, my desperation for rent money quickly dissipated and this undeniable sense of hope and faith in humanity consumed me.

After noticing many of the kids in her class fighting and saying nasty things to each other, Celine decided something needed to be done and so she tasked herself with the challenge of teaching kindness and empathy to her students. This desire for more empathy transpired across not only the French school but into the surrounding community.

Empathy is what enables us to relate to other people and their experiences. It’s what enables us to understand them. And it’s what makes us compassionate. Empathy is something that needs to be nurtured and that’s exactly what Celine and the French School in Cape Town are doing.

Sam: Hi Celine, thanks so much for chatting with me today. I wanted to start by asking you whether you believe empathy is inherent or needs to be taught?

Celine: I believe many of us don’t automatically put ourselves in the shoes of others when looking at a challenge. Humans can be selfish and we need constant reminders on the importance of showing empathy to those around us.

Some of the kids in my class grabbed at the opportunity to make sandwiches for those less fortunate while for others it was something new to think about, it put many of them out their comfort zones and they needed some encouragement. This was a reminder to me that empathy is not necessarily inherent & natural for all of us, it needs to be taught and it should be taught if we want to create a society built around kindness and compassion.

Sam: How did you start teaching empathy to your class?

Celine: I always say teaching is repeating. When you learn a new word in a new language, studies show you need to hear the word about 7-10 times in different situations and contexts.

It’s the same for every subject you are learning. I had to make sure empathy and kindness weren’t just seen in one context but in various situations in and outside the classroom and that’s where Brownie Points came in.

I also ensured that every time kids reacted negatively to one another I took a moment to discuss the issue with the class and looked at how we could understand the other person and reframe the words we used.

Sam: What motivated you to put all your energy into focusing on kindness and empathy in your class?

My goal is to get these kids to think! They are not here to absorb everything I say, I want them to challenge me, to challenge the system, to see how they can make a difference and to be able to make their own decisions. Choice = freedom.

In 10 years my kids are going to be the ones playing a role in our society and opening their own businesses. If they haven’t been taught the importance of playing a positive role in their communities and to think of people before profit then we will never be able to create a fair and just society.

Sam: How did Brownie Points add to your mission?

I had been following Brownie Points for a while and have always been so inspired by the incredible work they do. Blake and Pascale approached our school one day and shared that the platform is not only used for individuals but it can be implemented in schools as well.

I decided that this wouldn’t just be the perfect addition to my classroom but to the entire school, so we jumped at the opportunity and haven’t looked back!

The kids started using Brownie Points together in class before Lockdown. By getting the kids to scroll through the Brownie Points platform they became aware of the magnitude of issues across our country ranging from homelessness to planet protection.

Together our school listed 20 causes on Brownie Points that we believed needed some assistance. The kids loved this process and got to really think about how they could make a difference in someone’s lives and what could they do to make a positive impact on the world around them.

During lockdown our kids continued using the platform on their own devices from home. We decided to work together to help one of the causes we had listed, which was making sandwiches for those in need.

The kids worked together to design their own campaign which was put up on the Brownie Points site. They rallied their families together for the cause and got them to assist in making sandwiches which were then dropped off at different spots around Cape Town.

Our kids, their families and the surrounding community could log into the campaign with ease and find out how everyone was getting involved and as a class we could also measure the impact we had. We managed to distribute over 5000 sandwiches to those in need and the kids couldn’t have been more proud.

This taught the kids that one small drop of kindness can create countless ripples and eventually a river.

Sam: How did the kids react to your efforts? Did you notice any changes in your students?

It wasn’t easy, there were lots of ups and downs, lots of very tough and sometimes uncomfortable conversations that I believe are important to have. Just when I thought I was getting to them I would notice certain kids were still behaving badly outside the classroom and I felt that all my hard work was going to waste!

After 3 months of practising empathy and kindness in class, a parent came to me and expressed that a boy in my class had shared some terribly nasty words to another student. I was shocked! This was one of the students in my class that was grabbing the concept of empathy with an open heart and motivation to make a change, and now I hear he is saying such cruel remarks.

I pulled him aside one afternoon to discuss the matter. I asked him to put himself in the little girl’s shoes and straight away he said. ” I never want to be a bully and he went straight to her and apologised without anyone asking him to do so.” Through teaching empathy, I am able to open my kid’s eyes and teach them to see clearly even when they are feeling frustrated or upset and help them make the choice to do the right thing.

Slowly but surely all my kids started showing a real sense of compassion and concern towards one another. Before lockdown, if one child wasn’t in class they all wanted to know where this pupil was and if they were ok. My kids were no longer splitting into groups but sitting together and connecting. Which is something I haven’t seen in my time teaching.

During Lockdown they were assisting each other on the Brownie Points platform making sure they all knew how to use it correctly. It was so beautiful to see.

The kids are more inquisitive, they ask important questions and want to understand situations from other perspectives instead of just absorbing information from a textbook.

My students gained so much confidence in their abilities this year all achieving between 90-100% for their final mark, but their willingness to help one another succeed is what stood out the most.

Sam: What have you learned from this experience?

Celine: One of my past students shared with me that their generation is so used to getting instant gratification and so much done for them that they have got this ” Well what are you doing for me?” mentality. They don’t just want to give without knowing what they can get in return and that saddens me. This showed me that the energy I have put into these kids is even more important and needed across the world.

I also learned that empathy and love is not a sprint its a long- distance journey. We are always going to be learning and growing and we need to be sustainable in our efforts to help those around us.

Lockdown has taught us that we need each other as individuals and as businesses. We don’t have to change the whole world but we can change the world around us.

It’s not always a case of doing things for people its a matter of showing people they are not alone on their journey and finding out how you can make that journey a little easier.

What started as a simple goal to teach the kids kindness has turned into a movement, one that I hope will continue throughout their lives.

Do you teach empathy in your classroom and home? Please tell us about your experiences in the comments section below.

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Sam Hayward
Sam is one of our feature writers passionate about creating content that tells a story and evokes emotion. When she’s not creating content you can find her talking to millennials about the importance of mental health, on the yoga mat leading a class and exploring the beauty of the great outdoors.

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