One morning during a recent visit to a primary 7 class I watched a young teacher go round the classroom correcting mental arithmetic homework. She leaned across to tick Andrew’s work when he tugged her sleeve, looked up into her face and asked “Miss would you know to look at my face that our daddy left us last night?”
The emotional life meets us every day often in ways, at times and in circumstances we least expect (and are least prepared for). But then that is life – spontaneous, unpredictable, emotional – rich in its rewards and punishing in its ‘lessons’.
This illustration demonstrates a seldom-explored dimension of teaching and offers sharp focus of the need to educate the whole child – physically, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually. Few teachers would underestimate the importance of their next words and actions in response to Andrew’s desperate plea to know and be known. But how many teachers have been taught how to manage such situations – let alone manage them in ways that promote personal confidence and resilience? How is a teacher to respond to such a happening, to meet Andrew where ‘he’s at’ and teach him the skills, attitudes and values to come to terms with his life and manage it well?
The literal, or intellectual, response, “No Andrew”, would seem trite, insufficient and invalidating. Reassurance through a human-to-human response that offers validation is what is sought and required. This will frighten many teachers (away from any response) and bring others well out of their comfort zone. It calls upon the teacher to have courage and respond not as a teacher and not from their intellect but from their own emotional dimension – from their own repertoire of feelings and experiences. In short the teacher must be empathic and communicate sensitively with Andrew on a personal level. That is not to say that any personal information needs to be exchanged from the teacher or indeed from Andrew but that Andrew must feel met and understood as a person and derive some sense of validation and perhaps even worthiness from the teacher’s response. Often the offer to listen to his story is sufficient to allow Andrew to feel OK and provide him with the nourishment to face home and potential further crunches to his self-esteem.
Two and two is indisputably four and yet teaching is so much more that conveying mere intellectual knowledge and understanding. An education cannot be “done to” children. Whether through unexpected moments or planned lessons the classroom makes demands of the teacher beyond pure pedagogical skills. However these demands provide opportunities from which self-esteem, personal worth and new knowledge may grow. A new sense of “self” can emerge from deep and meaningful relationships between teachers and pupils. Teachers’ empathic responses to Andrew’s question can provide students with an array of skills, qualities and dispositions with which to deal with life’s events. Opportunities may be easily missed or glossed over but attention to the emotional life of children equips them with the resources to negotiate the challenges of life beyond the classroom and into adulthood. Ultimately this serves to benefit society in the development of confident, enterprising, young people who have courage and resilience.