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Why empathy is the missing link - Rachel Arnold

19th October 2023

By Rachel Arnold, English lecturer and English teaching and learning coach at Solihull College & University Centre and Research Further Scholar.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with Roosevelt’s adage “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”. Despite being a line likely found in a Hallmark card and credited also to the likes of Churchill and Monroe, when looking at the learner and teacher dynamic, perhaps there is some truth. Yes, students arrive at their classrooms to learn from the knowledge and expertise their teacher possesses, but to what extent does that interfere with their need to be seen and valued for where they’re currently at?

GCSE resit learners in FE in particular have experienced the difficult and even debilitating situation of failure before they’ve even set foot in the FE classroom. With this baggage comes a need to be encouraged and cared for, being met with empathy instead of reminded of their previous failure and ‘how much they don’t know’.

In my recent master’s research, I conducted several focus groups with my own GCSE resit learners, from a variety of vocational courses, to learn more about their current perceptions of having to retake the course and their experiences with failure. The results were illuminating and empowering for myself and my students. The most common response was a “fear of failure”, with students scared to repeat the very thing they have not succeeded in. This was an unsurprising response based on conversations I’ve had with individual students over the years, but there was something different about hearing groups of students all agree that this was a genuine fear. Consequently, I experienced an even greater sense of urgency to explore ways of reducing this fear and replacing it with the confidence to try again, in a different environment.

Within the top 10 responses, only one was positive, with some learners recognising the resit course as an opportunity for a second chance. The fact that nine of the learners’ top perceptions regarding their GCSE resit were negative was telling of the space they occupy. By approaching the course from a space of negativity and fear it is understandable that learners are often reluctant to fully engage with this aspect of their educational journey. So where does that leave us as teachers? Either we stay on the side of the fearful failure, or we meet our learners where they are and occupy a new space facilitated by empathy.

We can’t change the difficulty of the GCSE exams, but we can change the way in which we interact with our learners, choosing empathy over unrealistic expectation. Of course, we want our learners to achieve their potential and have the best chance of educational success, but perhaps our first desire should be to embrace the space they are currently in, to welcome the opportunity to empathise with their situation and focus on cultivating a culture of new opportunities. It is unrealistic to assume we can break down of all the barriers our students face, but we should expect to be the positive link between their past failures and future successes. Such a link can come in many forms, with even the smallest of details making a profound difference. Empathy is often defined as walking in someone else’s shoes to gain a newfound perspective and understanding. With our learners this may first require us to recognise where they have come from and where they are currently at, in order to be able to start the journey together.

So, what does this look like in practice? How can we show our students that we can be that connecting link and demonstrate empathy every step of the way? Often it is through the smallest of comments that we can make these important connections. Just last week I found myself commenting on a piece of student’s work where they had written a letter introducing themselves. There were many grammatical errors, missing full stops and incorrectly spelled words all over the page. However, I was pretty sure that this student already knew that. They already knew their writing was not going to be accurate based on years of feedback in school and a low GCSE grade which told them so. What was I going to achieve in that moment by reminding them of that in their very first piece of written work on their FE journey?

Instead, I chose to meet them where they’re at and be the link to a new space of opportunity, by simply commenting that I was excited to teach them this year and eager to learn from them. This student had so much to offer from the interests and hobbies they had written about and that is what I wanted to connect with. I chose to let them know I cared before I let them know what they didn’t know or couldn’t do. We may not have experienced educational failure in the same way as our learners, but we can build connections based on empathy where we recognise the space they are occupying and then accompany them on their journey to claim new ground and new success.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.