Hi, I am Komal, a mathematics teacher in charge of grade VI.
During the pandemic, I faced a lot of emotional stress because of the adaptations I had to make to my ways of teaching and feeling isolated just like my students. I am a regular reader of TaLL e-resource magazine which gives me insightful information not only about the educational world but the classroom practices too. I have read the articles on mental health and psycho-social wellbeing of students and could relate it to my situation. After reading these articles, I became more aware and caring for my students’ emotional needs. I started working on how I could be more helpful and accessible to my students. Taking this concern forward, I started talking to them by giving them personal time over the phone. I realized that after some calls and discussions, students started opening up to me with the issues that were making them anxious, fearful, sad and frustrated among other emotions. They come up with responses like “I don’t like my Mumma, she keeps on yelling at my father”. “My younger brother is always a problem creator.” “ There are some kids in the colony who tease me”. “I feel frustrated when I cannot finish my homework.” Once Ruchi, a student of mine, told me, “My brother doesn’t care about anybody in the house. He doesn’t have the ability or interest to understand or perceive how another person feels. Even if you tell him how you’re thinking and feeling, he doesn’t show interest in perceiving and understanding what you’re going through.” Some students also told me that they really liked that I called them to find out about their wellbeing.
After performing this exercise for around one week, I realised that it is really important for my students to learn about the skills that would help them in real-life situations and also make them aware of ‘life skills’ needed for a successful and productive living. These skills will build their confidence in both communicative and collaborative domains, provide them with tools important for development, find new ways of thinking and problem-solving and provide methods on how to socialize, make new friends and recognize the impact of their actions on their personal and social lives. My motive is not to teach a particular life skill but to create some kind of simulation of the particular skill so that my students would be able to relate and understand how to handle similar situations, whenever they are confronted with the same.
So, today out of the ten Life skills I have decided to take the one on “Self-Awareness and Empathy”. It is one of the important skills to cultivate in students.
I had clear thoughts in my mind that I am not going to discuss the name of the skill, so I started out with a small story of a 10-year-old girl called Benny Murghan, who has a fatal disease. She is a kind and pretty girl who loves to make new friends. One afternoon, when she was playing in the park, all alone, she fainted and there was nobody to pick her up for around an hour. She was taken to the hospital and was diagnosed with a tumor in her stomach which was growing with each passing day. Doctors placed her on a waiting list for a treatment that will relieve her pain, and potentially prolong her life. Sadly, this very bright, very brave girl learns that she has to wait for months before the treatment would happen.
After narrating this story, I asked my students to imagine how this feels, and how it will affect Benny’s life? I gave some pause and let my students feel about her life. After a while, I asked them to share their feelings. Further, I asked – Do you wish that she should get the treatment as soon as possible? What would you do if you had the opportunity to bump her up to the top of the list for getting the required treatment?
When the class was presented with Benny’s fictional story, I tried to encourage them to feel empathy for her. While answering the above questions, around three-quarters of my students moved her up the list to get her treated earlier. They started giving their views as to why they wanted so. That is what I wanted them to feel and express their emotions during this process of understanding Benny’s situation. How does it feel when we relate to another person’s feelings?
There is another perspective that I wanted them to think about.
“You know the story of Benny. You feel for her. You want her to be treated before others. Fine. But just imagine, doing so could mean that other children who are also in the queue above her would have to wait even longer! How do you know if many of whom might be more deserving? Now most of you want her to get the treatment faster. But what about the other patients who have prior appointments? As per your suggestion, maybe some more deserving patients will need to wait because of her, or somebody could even die!
Presented with this perspective students went silent for some time. Then, they opened up. This time, students were talking about wider parameters to decide a course of action. Now it was not so easy to decide.
This is an example of what psychologists call the “identifiable victim effect”. People are much more likely to open their hearts or wallets when there is a visible beneficiary whose pain could be alleviated. So it’s a matter of perspective and degree also when we talk about being empathic for someone. Students were listening with deep interest as I tried to explain. Now I could see that my students were intrigued and curious. They started talking among themselves about the issue. I wanted them to explore and dive in deeper to know more about other skills like emotions, problem solving and decision making. But in today’s class, I restricted myself to awareness about being empathetic. To make the mood a bit light, without diluting the issue, I shared with them a song by sharing a link to an empathy song. I wanted students to sing along if they felt so.
I resumed the discussion. Now the same student who told me about her brother being brash, posed a very interesting question, “Is it possible that my brother could develop Empathy in himself?” I really loved that she understood the concept. Yes, we can include some of these practices by talking to them empathetically. This could help them to understand new perspectives. So, the need is to create a space to listen to others with empathy. A very common obstacle to empathic relationships is that often individuals don’t listen to one another in a conversation. So, we must learn the art of effective listening.
Apart from this, reading fictional books could also help to imagine others’ situations and predicaments. I shared an article with them “ Article on how to be more empathic”.
At the end of the session, I wanted my students to reflect upon what all we did in the class.
Can you present a story about the most empathic person in your life? Notice and underline the factors and reasons for him or her to be so empathic. This could be presented as a story, a poem, a narrative or a drawing/sketch, or a brief note. Here are a few pictures of what students presented in my classroom later. Please find them here.