Empathy: Planting a Seed for the Future

Silvermine Academy (SMA) is a small independent high school nestled in the foothills of the Silvermine Mountains in Fish Hoek, Cape Town.

We write the Independent Examinations Board examinations1 and we have been a proud member of ISASA for many years. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, we, like many other schools, had to look inward to find strength and resilience.

At the centre of our school’s ethos we found a small seed of empathy. It has always been there, and 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.

Writing this article now in the sunlight, the words of researcher Brené Brown resonate in my heart:

Empathy has no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’

Empathy is what saved us when our parents were struggling to pay school fees. It is what kept our staff whole as people lost their loved ones, and what nurtured our matrics through their exams. It was not something we pivoted towards when the pandemic was at its worst – it was always present. The only difference is that we learnt how to let it grow and guide. We learnt that it is a skill that can be taught and nurtured if we are to brave the future.

Empathy derives from the Greek term ‘empatheia’: (em- or ‘in’ and pathos or ‘feeling’). It describes the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is now understood to be a core component of emotional intelligence, which is a concept that first appeared in the early writings of Wayne Leon Payne in the 1980s. In further research conducted by professors John Mayer and Peter Salovey in 1990 emotional intelligence was defined as:

  • the ability to identify emotions in oneself as well as in others,
  • the ability to integrate one’s emotions into thought processes,
  • the ability to process complex emotions, and
  • the ability to regulate one’s emotions as well as the emotions of others.

Empathy and the teenage brain

Empathy crucial at Silvermine Academy

In a world where we are confronted with news about climate change over breakfast, cyberbullying for lunch and COVID-19 statistics with dinner, it is easy for us as parents and teachers to feel that there is an irony in the fact that ‘connection’ has become such a ubiquitous word in our time.

Never has information been so pervasive, but connection seems further and further from our experience. The struggles of growing up in a constantly changing world, and the amount of pressure we experience is very real. At SMA, student empathy is crucial to maintaining interpersonal networks in order to avoid apathy and existential desperation.

Science shows that the heart has an unmistakable role in learning, both in the figurative and literal sense. Author, psychologist and international school consultant Thom Markham says, ‘Research on heart rate variability and emotions shows that the heart engages the brain in constant conversation, using the language of emotions to direct the “state” of the brain.’ It is a complex interplay, and when talking about complexity, what is more complex than the teenage brain?

Our principal Mandy Pistorius explains that ‘a teenager’s brain is more powerful and more vulnerable than at any other time of their life’. Pistorius has spent most of her career as a Foundation Phase teacher. This gives her the unique ability to reach out to the small child in every student and teacher under her care. She goes on to say:

[N]avigating through the teenage years is fraught with danger as the brain is under construction. Impulsive behaviour and risk taking are ever present. At Silvermine Academy, we are cognisant that there are times that we need to ‘lend’ our students our pre-frontal cortex to help them plot a safe course to matric.

The adolescent brain and empathy

Through magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscience shows us that the teenage brain goes through two opposing processes. Firstly, the body develops, unleashing sex hormones into the brain, and secondly, neurotransmitters are in flux and new connections are being made all the time. There is a lot of movement and dynamic energy as the brain develops.

The pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for emotional regulation, rationality and decision-making, is not fully developed. And although we might not know it, says researcher Laurence Steinberg, our teenagers are very aware of this, so, it should come as no surprise that risk-taking and emotionally driven behaviour are the norm for them.

As a high school teacher, I can say that this scientific back-drop ties in with my experience of teenagers in the classroom. Over and above the burdens of the information age, high school students are wading through the biological swamp. If we are truly honest, not many of us enjoyed being teenagers – or more specifically, puberty. And we spend a large chunk of our adulthood distinguishing ourselves from our teenage-selves. Perhaps that is why interacting with teenagers is so challenging for so many of us.

Researcher Vanessa Andreotti explains that to construct our own identities, we define who we are not. To have an ‘us’, we must have an ‘other’. Similarly, to have an adult who is ‘grown up’, we must have a teenager who is not. This hierarchy worked well in the pre-pandemic world, but in our experience at SMA, the disruptions caused by COVID-19 upended this construct.

What we have experienced has been a lot closer to Paulo Freire’s idea of empathy wherein student and teacher each experience discomfort interwoven with compassion in dialogue. We found ourselves negotiating teaching and learning in a new way, leaning on the ethos we had built for many years. As Pistorius often says, ‘there is no learning without relationship’ and ‘as teachers have all been teenagers, they are able to sympathise, empathise and offer compassion in everyday situations.’

One of my favourite educational theorists, Lev Vygotsky, wrote a great deal on socio-emotional learning, the idea that social interaction is vital to cognitive development and learning. He posits that a school is an ecosystem of interconnected interactions between people and information. Pistorius uses the metaphor of a three-legged stool to explain the concept, referring to the parents, the child, and the school. She explains to parents that if ever one of the legs were to stop working, the stool would fall over.

Online technologies are still young. What is not clear at this juncture is whether children who are raised interacting regularly in virtual worlds will develop empathy in a different manner than other generations. Empathy is a component of self-awareness, a core competency in social and emotional learning.

When it comes to teaching teenagers this valuable and often idealised skill, it is important for teachers to be supported and scaffolded through meaningful mediation. My time at SMA has shown me that structured activities and strategies can work to this end. Markham explains it well when he says, ‘Setting up a culture of care is very much an exercise in making empathy central to daily work.’

Empathy can be taught

All in a day’s and a week’s work at SMA

A typical day at SMA begins with a mentor class. Each grade is assigned a mentor teacher who is responsible for student wellbeing, parent communication and some general administration. This teacher mentors the same grade from Grade 8 to 12. They are a daily part of ‘their students’ ’ lives for five years.

Part of the morning routine is for our teachers to ‘check-in’ with each student and record how they are feeling. It’s a simple 1-4 rating – one being terrible, and four being excellent. The simplicity of the number rating allows the student to give their mentor teacher an indication for their wellbeing without embarrassment or shame. It allows them to follow Susan David’s advice: ‘emotions are data, they are not directives’.

The teacher listens and records these numbers for each student without judgement or comment, and when everyone leaves class for the first lesson, the teacher can check in with each student at the door. Sometimes it is necessary for teachers to spend breaktime with a student to discuss their rating. These discussions are journaled in a private journal on the school’s database, accessible only by teachers who teach that child and the principal.

The students are made aware of the reasons behind each step in this process. We asked a student what their takeaway was from their relationship with their mentor teacher, and they said, ‘it’s taught me that I’m not alone with whatever I go through, and there is always a teacher or peer that I can confide in.’ The aim of the mentor/teacher relationship with a student is to build a one-on-one trust connection.

The next step is to foster this trust into a culture of sharing, empathy, and cooperation. Markham says, ‘Speaking or listening to someone without radiating empathy narrows the channel of communication or blocks connection altogether’. It seems to me that the inverse is also true.

Teaching students to share and engage by modelling that behaviour is a prime opportunity to widen the channel of communication and open connection. At SMA we do this with a weekly ‘care circle’, which is used to rally students around each other and to form a support structure.

Each week the whole school has a care circle lesson scheduled on the timetable, when the students gather in their mentor classes to discuss a topic relating to everyday life. One of our students explains the outcome of this practice best: ‘When I was struggling or sick, the teachers and pupils made me feel happy and not stressed. I know how to do that now.’

At the beginning of this year, during our first care circle, four different students exclaimed how happy they were to be back at school in a nurturing environment away from conflict at home. The teachers who reported this feedback during our weekly staff meeting were touched by how their students were able to verbalise their experience and how they shared it so openly. I think what we learnt about this practice during the pandemic is that teachers needed this judgement-free space as much as their students.

Fostering empathy at Silvermine Academy

Different kinds of discipline and reward

Discipline and motivation are two prime areas for integrating empathy at a school. At SMA, we make use of reflective discipline and its counterpart reflective praise. Just as punishment for the sake of order and hierarchy is harmful, praise without substance can be too.

If a student makes a mistake or transgresses, their mentor teacher will be the one to take them through the reflection form and discuss alternatives, motivations, and reasons for their actions. The students accept this process with grace and often gratitude.

Gentle correction is the balm for teenage angst.

One student explained reflection like this: ‘I learnt empathy from how the school chooses to understand the students’ actions instead of just punishing us.’ Another quietly added: ‘I learnt that you are allowed to make mistakes, and now when other people mess up, I can encourage them.’

When praise is given, it is as important to foster understanding for the motivations and reasons behind the achievement. These take the form of ‘voice overs’ during awards ceremonies at SMA. During an awards ceremony, the mentor teacher for a grade will stand at the front of the hall and give a short speech highlighting the noteworthy achievements and behaviours of each student in their mentor class. There is seldom a dry eye on either the giving or the receiving end of this ceremony. All students also receive an emotional intelligence rating on their termly report card.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, we are a small school with a student complement of 100 and 11 teachers. We found that students connect beyond grade or interests when they have this shared narrative of care and compassion. Students interviewed for this article expressed this beautiful sentiment: ‘Our small school has taught us to pay extra attention to the people around us’. These words showed me that the culture of care at SMA has become natural to our students and they will take that out into the world.

What we do in the virtual world is forever

That brings me to some final thoughts. Although it gave me much joy to recount our journey in relation to empathy, the social distancing necessitated by COVID-19 keeps us and our teenagers in equal measures of horror and amusement.

How can we maintain human connection that fosters SEL in these circumstances? Markham suggests focusing on cooperative practices that will help students to navigate life in the 21st century. Interactions beyond the screen are as important as the skills to access information online. The ability to listen and engage without judgement is a skill that must be mediated by a human.

Please do not label me a Luddite – I am a hardcore gamer – but nothing can quite replace the value of socio-emotional learning and its end result: empathy. Furthermore, empathy should be considered a prerequisite online skill. What we do in the virtual world is forever. If our actions in the physical world are any indication, we need to rethink how we interact with our environment and those charged with its future.