Empathy during COVID

A Small Seed of Empathy

On page 36 of the Autumn 2022 edition of Independent Education, Urshula Saindon writes,

At the centre of our school’s ethos we found a small seed of empathy. It has always been there, but through daily care and constant re-evaluation, we nurtured it. Through the tumultuous times of the past two years this value has sprouted, growing tiny, translucent roots around and within the entire school’s community. No one has been left untouched – our parents, students, teachers, and support staff have all felt its glow.

Saindon is the business manager at Silvermine Academy in Fishhoek, Cape Town, and in this moving article, she talks about how her small ISASA member school has navigated its way through COVID-19.

It’s still hard for many of us to face what the world has been through since early 2020. This fact was made even clearer to me when I watched a Frontline Public Broadcasting Service documentary about how Italian doctors, nurses and patients staggered through the initial phases of the ghastly pandemic.

What moved me most of all was the case of an 18-year-old young man named Mattias who was hit so severely by the coronavirus, that he was intubated and heavily sedated while his body fought the infection. Helpless and alone at home, his mother asked only, and I paraphrase here, that the nurses in the intensive care unit ‘caress him every now and then, as a mother would.’

Mattias recovered, but it took him several months to literally, get back on his feet. When he did, he was a different person. This has happened to many of us. We have suffered losses of the most profound kind, and we are now reflecting on the impact of those losses.

Yet empathy is also about triumph. It is about staring down the facts, assessing the challenges and moving forward with courage. This is what all of the ISASA member schools featured in this edition have done. They have told their stories so that other schools may try out their curricular approach, or teaching practice or development strategy in order to move forward with success.

From now on, school development strategies should always involve empathy, because people are at the heart of schools and many of us feel vulnerable right now. It is therefore unsurprising to me that our ‘making a difference’ section in this edition features such a rich diversity of stories. On page 30, for example, Nicky de Bruyn and Violah Moya at Uplands Outreach in Mpumalanga, detail the importance of forging supportive partnerships with state education stakeholders, saying:

The relationship with your local circuit manager is essential to any sophisticated [school] outreach programme… Take time to get to know your circuit manager; invite him/her to your school, visit his/her office, interview him/her about their individual stories and backgrounds. There are many heroic individuals working at this level, in arguably the highest-pressure position in the [education] department.

On page 28, Rejane Woodroffe, founder of Bulungula College in a remote rural region of the former Transkei on the Wild Coast of the Eastern Cape, has exciting updates to share with readers. She says, ‘Motivated by our common humanity, we are giving rural youth a true chance to become our nation’s leaders.’

Heather Blanckensee, head at Sacred Heart College in Observatory, Johannesburg, takes an equally positive approach on, as she recounts how the school and other organisations in the neighbourhood such as the local police station and soccer club have gathered together to share resources of all kinds.

My own experience of the last two years is that we can and must show our learners and parents what empathy looks like. However, to engage in this behaviour on a daily basis, to be empathetic – not pitying – is a choice . Perhaps today, instead of saying, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you’, you can say instead, ‘Tell me your story. Perhaps there’s something I can do to help.’