All Secondary – Empathy

We’re quite used to hearing the fact that we, as teachers, are not good enough and the only way we will ever be able to ‘catch up’ with other countries is to attract a better ‘class of graduates’ to the profession. These calls are of course well meaning but they overlook two things – why do we need to be the best in the world? (Daily Telegraph readers still hark back to a ‘better age’ when we dominated the world – forgetting that ‘we’ only dominated the world through threats, violence and unfair trade) Secondly, and no offence here to ‘high flying graduates’, but the best graduates don’t necessarily make the best teachers. Having done some work in an Academy in London in January where hiring Oxbridge graduates was seen as a panacea I can certainly see what people are trying to do, but it doesn’t guarantee success. It’s a theory that hasn’t really been tested and I am sure it is born out of snobbery, another idea from ‘educationalists’ who have never been in a classroom in their life.

Perhaps the need for ‘a better class of graduate’ should stretch to our politicians. Baroness Warsi’s latest behaviour has got me thinking that. However, anytime criticism is thrown at politicians, they will retort that they need their pay, its well earned and the fact they can be voted out at the next election means they are on a form of ‘performance related pay’ (although its tricky to vote someone out of the House of Lords!)  It’s of course something that is always mooted for teachers and I suspect it will not be long until Michael ‘I hate the public sector’ Gove brings it in, because in his mind anyone who works for the public sector is lazy and incompetent and will only respond to capitalist competition. After all, before league tables I never bothered teaching – I didn’t care about the kids, it was only the competition of the league tables that got me to be a good teacher… (heavy sarcasm here of course, but you get my point.)

Anyway, performance related pay doesn’t work. Mike Griffiths, a teacher writing in The Guardian on the 1st May 2012, raises some excellent points one of them being the most fundamental question, how can we measure performance? This is something the government does not like – education, and health for that matter, are not ‘measurable’ and do not fit into policy think tank business models. Griffiths also makes the point that the irony of being seen as successful as a teacher is that you are moved into management thus depriving the classroom of another good teacher! Even in ‘measurable’ industries, the whole performance-related pay lark is ignored anyway – John Hourican, head of RBS’s investment banking arm, caused a stir in January when it was announced that he will get his £4.3m bonus despite 5,000 job cuts being announced and a decrease in the share price of almost 40%. Can you imagine the outcry from the Daily Mail if a Headteacher received even a minor bonus against a backdrop of falling examination results and students leaving the school in disgust?

Anyway, I digress! So teacher becomes a dirty word, but we live in hope that one day it might return to former glories. Another word in a similar situation that I want to say a few quick words about is empathy. And I don’t mean it in the context of Michael Gove needing some with us teachers! In recent years it has been much maligned – denigrated as a pointless ‘write a diary entry of a Roman soldier’ exercise, which more often than not becomes a creative writing task. Maybe I’m old fashioned but I would stay stick with it – if done correctly it can be a very powerful tool. For students to fully understand History they need to understand WHY people have done what they have done in the past. I’ve always been interested in human behaviour and one of the many reasons I love history is because it tells us a great deal about this topic. At a recent interview lesson, where I am pleased to say I was successful, I was trying to get students to think about why the Black Death spread so quickly. It is easy for our generation to look back at this topic and almost laugh at their stupidity for not knowing fleas on the backs of rats caused the plague. One student played into my hands in the starter by asking ‘why people were so stupid at that time’ –  but thanks to an empathy task by the plenary that very same student could sympathise with a deeply scared population who felt they were being punished by God. Through this we learn a lot about human behaviour too.

So stick with empathy. Some of my most successful lessons have been empathy lessons where students start to see why something happened and how people felt at the time – why the Suffragettes wanted the vote, why the ‘Peasants’ revolted. Its easy with hindsight to criticise or misunderstand, but effective lessons – Ian Luff’s Historical Association article ‘I’ve Been In The Reichstag’, August 2000 will attest to this – can really get your students interested in the subject because they see why these events were important and how they affected people at the time – this will eradicate your bored year 10s who chirp up with ‘who cares if the League abandoned Haile Selassie in Abyssinia?’ The best way to understand why so many people voted for Hitler, or why Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 (when after all, it was he who emancipated the Serfs – surely a ‘good’ thing?) is to take your students back to the past with you. Believe me, it’s extremely powerful stuff!

Joe Wilkinson


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