Teachwell | Deprived Children – The Politics of Sympathy
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Deprived Children - The Politics of Sympathy

"Sand Sculpture" by 
Erich Ferdinand
https://www.flickr.com/photos/erix/2600692803/in/photolist-myxDgJ-4XPen6-5wrz1p-bwS2SS-6hbPDy-7sgzvB-Dqf2gL-drTJHi-aBX7pm-B4X7jr-AA5SK1-bjacRn-6dFcd8-3GMz8-4UCggn is licensed under CC BY 2.0
"Sand Sculpture" by Erich Ferdinand https://www.flickr.com/photos/erix/2600692803/in/photolist-myxDgJ-4XPen6-5wrz1p-bwS2SS-6hbPDy-7sgzvB-Dqf2gL-drTJHi-aBX7pm-B4X7jr-AA5SK1-bjacRn-6dFcd8-3GMz8-4UCggn is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Empathy –  the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Sympathy – feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’ misfortune.

(Source Oxford Dictionaries online: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/)


It is easy to mistake the sympathy for empathy but as the above definitions highlight, the difference is huge. Sympathy is driven by one’s feelings whereas empathy would encompass both feelings and thoughts of another. Understanding events in a person’s life and feelings from a different perspective and not simply those confined to your own world view.


Empathy enables the other to understand but to understand, one needs in the first place to accept that those who you are attempting to empathise with may feel very differently to what you do or what you think they should or ought to feel. This is rarely the case with the ubersympathisers within primary schools. This is even more the case when the child is from a deprived socio-economic background, is considered vulnerable or has behavioural problems.


So the story would go something like this:


Child comes to school. teacher realises (via school register, area being taught in, etc) that the child is from a deprived background and this instantly invokes sympathetic feelings. If the child has behaviour problems, then the sympathy goes up in proportion to the extent of the poor behaviour. The worse the behaviour is the more sympathy is felt by the teacher, as they imagine the misfortune suffered by the child is proportionate to their anger/violence/aggression. The other children who are not badly behaved (but may still be going through some difficult situations, equal to and possibly more than badly behaved child) do not elicit the same sympathy as them because, after all, there is nothing to be sympathetic about. They are not showing any outward signs of what they are feeling about their home life that can be latched onto by the said teacher, so they believe it is fair to presume the child is not subject to or suffering any ill effects from their home life. The child seems fine – they have no need for your sympathy.


This is the same tale told in many a primary school and it is stifling for those of us who have learned the power of empathy and find offering sympathy a poor second. This lack of empathy is also due to the inherent ‘romanticised’ view of childhood which is deeply ingrained in the primary schools. This colours the explanations for children’s behaviour – the parameters for what their feelings are and why they are exhibiting particular behaviours –  is placed in a pre-designed framework of all children are innocent, blameless and not responsible for their behaviour. Therefore any behaviour must be the responsibility of the adults – parents or teachers – as the child is ‘being made’ to act that way or can’t help it. This leads pleasantly to the myth of the miracle teacher who can come in connect with the child, nurture them and make it all better.


To understand the feelings of someone who lives in a family which is less than perfect does not mean basing it what you already know, it means finding out from those who have actually experienced it. I once taught a child who had been subjected to sexual abuse from the age of 0 to 3 before she was taken into care. She chose to discuss her father with me on one occasion. Her feelings were that of a far more mature person than maybe even I was at the time. She told me that her father simply could not look after her (her mother had abandoned her just after birth) and that it was better for her to be with her foster family, who were in the process of adopting her. She would have two older siblings and she seemed positive and happy about the situation.


Now I accept that her feelings may change as she grows older but is it really so shocking that a child who has been given appropriate counselling and support for many years is not bitter or angry. She was sad that it did not work out with her birth parents but was open and willing to trust those offering her an alternative, given that living with her parents was simply not a possibility.  Her situation was a happy one so she went with it. Who is to judge her feelings or thoughts are wrong – they may not be what I or indeed others would imagine them to be but if she was trying to forgive and move on then good for her. I would have believed that she would be angry at the world for letting her down and giving her such a bad hand.


Her perspective is as valid as any other person who has suffered such abuse, to empathise with her involved me really examining my own thoughts and feelings in terms of holding onto the negative from the past and what that achieved. She was willing to let it go – a big thing to let go – but she seemed to want to. I accepted it and put myself in her shoes and really why would she or any other child wish to endlessly replay and be affected by early trauma for the rest of their lives. If they can move on, rebuild their lives, be happy then why not choose that option?


I suspect that part of the issue is that those who are offering their sympathy are needy and would struggle if there were no one to need them. Therefore outcomes such as the above, which it is within their remit to support, would not enable them to play the role they desire. This is an issue, particularly in primary school, both among teachers and TA’s. Like any other job, people do come into it for a variety of reasons.


In addition, I think that it would require a good long look at the current ideas within education on this issue. They do not really seem as though they are based on the experiences of children with difficult backgrounds. It is such a complex area and in comparison the ideas that are taught are highly simplistic – child is from a broken family = needs your love and care. If they reject it, it means they need it even more.


Attachment disorder is an interesting one, even more interesting as it only seems to affect the children of the poor. How many nurture groups are there in middle class schools? Yet there are children in those schools who grow up in abusive or difficult environments also. They do not suffer from poverty on top of that but the emotional pain of watching one parent abuse another for example is not based on the amount of money in the bank account or how nice a house you live in.


Furthermore, I think many would find it hard to accept that often the children who are not acting up despite problems at home do so due to their overriding need for stability. They leave their problems at the school gates, I know I did. I wanted to be in a different environment to the one I experienced everyday. How can anyone go from that to believing that people like myself would want teachers trying to act like substitute parents or indeed compensate for what is going on at home? The answer is of course simple, they are not empathising or understanding what is actually happening.


School can be the one place where people like myself could feel a calm, normalised atmosphere and could learn an alternative way of being, which is vital for those who want to break away from their home environment in the long run. And it is a long-term issue for those children who grow up in such families. Quick fix pity is unlikely to do much good.


When I look back, what I really wanted was for my parents to be happy and to get along, failing that for them to separate and to be happy apart if that was the only way. Not a parent substitute, not pity, not sympathy, just for the situation at home to get better. Therefore the notion that the school or teachers could have intervened in some way is so off the mark. However, the research in this area is focused on those children who come from such backgrounds and are a problem in society. People like myself are of no real interest because I am not being abused or abusing anyone. So am I an outlier? the norm? in the minority or in the majority of people who come from such families? Until there is more comprehensive research I can not say but suffice to say there is more than one way to react to even the most challenging of circumstances.


Ultimately, those of us who have difficult family backgrounds have to come to terms with it, not be allowed to misbehave at school and have such behaviour reinforced (which can surely only lead to recreating the same circumstances of their own family). If we wish to move on, then we need to understand those circumstances, not have well-meaning adults trying to substitute parents. More to the point, no adult is ever going to substitute your parents. They are real people and in some way or another the individual has to reach an understanding or learn to be at peace with the situation. There are ways , including counselling, however it is not a process that others have the right to interfere with unnecessarily. If a child is at risk then you know what to do in terms of safeguarding. Let’s put to bed the ideas and notions though that these children are not moral and spiritual in the same way as others. Maslow’s hierarchy has a lot to answer for in this respect, as it seems to give some adults all the reasons they need to decide that the child can not be responsible for their actions as they are lacking in an area of need. The truth is that evidence does not bear this out, either individually, across societies or cultures.


Those who perpetuate the myth that teachers unwilling to spend their time making such children happy are uncaring or detached need to take a good long look at themselves. Caring teachers, who act professionally and do the right thing by the children in their class by enabling them all to learn, have done far more good than all the bleeding heart liberals throwing pity parties. It is they who give the children the real means to transcend their situations.


It is just unwise that untrained and unsupervised adults at school put in place policies (such as nurture groups) or act on a set of principles which are based on ignorance. It has in my mind gone further and become unethical given that not one of these strategies has been scrutinised properly, not one longitudinal study has taken place that shows this type of pastoral care is either warranted or effective, and lastly there is no feedback from the children later on in life to assess the extent to which such interventions were or were not helpful.


It is time that those, especially in primary schools, took a step back, read a bit more, asked more questions and thought more carefully before attempting to support children emotionally and psychologically. To base it on a set of assumptions which are never questioned is wrong and this situation has lasted far too long already.


We all want to help children who are struggling or who have difficult lives. Ask yourself though if being a teacher is that role or whether there is a different role which involves care more than education as the focus which you are suited to. If you genuinely believe that the school environment is for you then at least attempt to be educated, be empathetic and be ethical before intervening.

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