If you ask a group of educators, from any sector what is the most important feature of successful teacher/student interaction invariably you get the answer relationships. And I would agree. However, personal relationships are hard work even when both parties are committed to having such a connection. It is a challenge when the relationship you need is between a teacher and an angry, oppositional student. It is obvious that it will be up to that teacher to build that relationship, not only is that connection a prerequisite for engagement, how else are they going to participate, it really is an ethical duty.
Relationships depend on two central abilities, the first is the capacity to communicate, the second is the ability to experience empathy for that student. Relationships, communication and empathy all take place in the intersubjective space between the teacher and the student; the point where both party’s feelings and beliefs overlap while they encounter a shared situation. The quality of this interaction depends on the teacher’s capability to empathize with the student and to understand the student’s interpretation of the event. It is not the student’s responsibility to make this happen.
If you go looking for a definition of empathy you will be inundated with numerous responses. Within all this is the idea that it is the ability to predict and experience, on a personal level how another individual feels and thinks about a shared situation. As with all ‘behaviour’ empathy is learned through our drive to improve our survival or reproduction. It is perhaps the most sophisticated form of social/emotional intelligence that equips you to navigate collective communications and get our needs met.
Empathy is first learned as an infant and it is no surprise that the earliest experience is in the eyes of a mother. A newborn’s field of vision is limited but it caters for the child to ‘see’ their mother’s eyes; in most cases the overwhelming love felt for a baby will gaze down. And so, it is the non-verbal communication learned in early childhood that holds the key to the development of empathy.
First the eyes, then the facial expression and posture. This conveys so much of the emotional content of our communication. Along with this is the tone of voice, cracking before tears or becoming edgy as we become annoyed. In a nurturing environment, the consistency between the non-verbal cues and the reality of the communication allows the child to grow into an empathetic adult.
In an early Newsletter (28th August 2018 – ‘Accept their lack of Empathy – Just for Now’) I explained that these children with severe behaviours lack empathy. Unlike those children mentioned above, these kids never experienced that consistent affection and care, they were denied the constant connection between life situations and emotional responses; they never learned to accurately predict.
So how do we build that relationship and subsequently build an ability for the child to empathize? It is important that you understand that in that intersubjective space between you and the student is a power imbalance that favours the teacher and this must be acknowledged. The teacher has control of this space and they must use that capacity to provide the conditions within that space to nurture the child.
That space must be safe, friendly and predictable, the conditions that allow trust to emerge. It is only when the space is reassuring, the teacher gains an understanding of the child’s intellectual and social functions, the student trusts the teacher and so teaching/learning can take place.
Although you are the ‘expert’ in the relationship it is important to remember that it is a shared experience. The connection between you will be strengthened the more the child is allowed to actively participate. How they do this is difficult as both you and the child really understand the power imbalance. However, there will be some areas where the child ‘knows things’ you don’t. If you seek to uncover their expertise and learn about it, the child will be more willing to engage with you. When we know this about the space it becomes easier to move on to new concepts or ideas.
In any situation, along with power comes responsibility. It is easy to become complacent about empathy or difficult to feel empathy towards a severely disruptive student. To avoid this failure to connect we can employ that most critical teaching technique of being predictable and consistent. The damage is done when we either fail to reinforce a connection between an action and a consequence or we become angry and/or unpredictable in our conduct.
As it is at the point of connection, the intersubjective space where failure occurs it makes sense that to avoid this breakdown you can apply the technique of retaining effective boundaries. Remember boundaries are synonymous with the intersubjective space.
These are outlined is the Newsletter (31st July 2017 – Teaching Practical Boundaries) and the steps are outlined to:
- Stay calm – While you, the teacher remains calm you remain in the psychological state that most allows you to make good decisions.
- Ask yourself – what is really happening’? The child’s motivation behind a child’s behaviour is not often transparent. An empathetic teacher will be informed about their students’ histories and understand how this will influence their response to the presenting situation.
- Understanding that you have the power in the relationship and that you are imperfect, you need to be sure you have not created the conflict. If you have, you must accept your liability and change your behaviour.
- If it is the child’s dysfunctional behaviour that has caused the problem them by understanding the driving force behind their disruptive conduct it is easier to maintain a sense of empathy towards them and retain that feeling of calm required to make proper decisions. If this is the case you need to decide what you want from them in the long term and what you need to do to get this.
If things are deteriorating and you are confronted with a failure to build relationships with your students don’t give up easily. This is a time to reflect, pause and contemplate the problem. A healthy attitude a teacher can take for any situations is that you:
- Know what you know – you know what to do
- You don’t know what you don’t know – you don’t know what to do
The thing that defines great teachers, read this carefully is they know what to do when they know they don’t know what to do and they take the required action; they will do what they have to do.
Finally, your empathetic relationships towards your students are professional, that is not to discount their authenticity but for your mental wellbeing they are to be confined to the school. You can be empathetic towards your students but you cannot live for them. It is their life and your job is to teach them how to get the best out of it for themselves.