Kindness, Care and Empathy

As readers of my blog, or people who know me, already know, I have been out of the UK for over a decade.  Still in one of my reflective moods, I have been talking to various people about the changing rôles of senior management in schools, the impact of the new coalition government and their slashing of funds for education, the disappearance or removal of various QUANGOs and ‘institutions’, and the new academies and ‘free schools’ [yes, I read the Guardian a lot, but it’s not my only source!].  These are, to say the least, uncertain times… I’m not sure yet if they are interesting though!

Having never had to run a department, let alone a school, I wonder how apprehensive the management teams are about all these sudden changes.  I also wonder how those of us who are not in management positions can best support our colleagues.  For some reason, I was reminded of the talk Barry Schwartz made to TED back in February 2009 Barry Schwartz: The real crisis? We stopped being wise.  I dug out the notes I made at the time I watched it last year and a number of bells began to ring!

Here are my notes from the video, together with my current reflections on them as a non-management teacher:

A wise person:

  • knows when and how to make the exception to every rule
  • knows when and how to improvise
  • is like a jazz musician – using the notes on the page but dancing around them
  • uses moral skills in pursuit of the right aims – serving not manipulating people
  • is made, not born

What happens when rules you have been following for some time are suddenly removed by the government?  What happens if you have the responsibility of making your own rules for running a school?  If wise people are made rather than born, how does that work and when does it have to start?  How far can you improvise before you lose the plot?

You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving.  You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures.  You need to be mentored by wise teachers.

How well do you really know the people you are working with, let alone the people you are serving?  Who are the people you are serving: parents, governors, local authorities, students…? How do we handle failures within the system?  Where do the wise teachers come from if a situation is completely new?

You don’t need to be brilliant to be wise, but without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough.

The main thrust of what Barry Schwartz was saying about wisdom also seemed to be tied in to experience and length of time spent working with the wise teachers and mentors.  Whilst many situations may be new to the management of schools, people have been managing businesses for years: running meetings, controlling budgets, hiring and firing people, etc.  Perhaps the time is ripe for schools to get some wisdom from local businesses, since some of their students may be future employees or business owners.  The way things appear to be headed in the UK, to me as a recent returnee, seems to be that school = small business!

“We hate to do it, but we have to follow procedure.”

This came from the lemonade story.  Watch the video!  Is this just an excuse? Or maybe it’s ‘passing the buck’ because:

Rules and procedures may be dumb, but they spare you from thinking.

Do we do enough critical thinking about the rules and procedures we follow or do we accept them as they are because they are mandated and if we don’t have to question them it gives us more time to…?

Tools: Rules and Incentives – better ones, more of them.

My first, knee-jerk reaction to this is unions and government.  Unions are great for collective bargaining and imparting a voice to those who would otherwise be disenfranchised.  I think teachers do need to be properly valued within society, but I wonder how many teachers are more interested in what funding is available for them to give up their ‘precious time’, rather than finding time to add value to what they are already doing by self-improvement.  Governments tend to introduce ‘outrageous’ rules, some of the Health and Safety legislation in the UK springs to mind, because a small minority always manages to find a way around the existing rules to do what they want and to spoil things for everyone else.  These people will always find a way, because they are selfish and new rules are not going to change that.

Moral skill is chipped away by an over-reliance on rules that deprive us of a chance to improvise.

Rules and the War on Moral Skill:

  • the lemonade story
  • scripted, lock-step curricula (don’t trust teacher judgement)

How far have you actually tested the rules and procedures in your school?  OK, maybe I’m being subversive here, but I’m sure some of you who are reading this have ‘bent’ a rule or ignored a procedure because of the relationship you have with your management/parent/student.  Do we highlight or discuss these situations to try to bring about a change, or do we keep quiet because we don’t want to be disciplined for ‘breaking the rules’?

Moral will is undermined by an incessant appeal to incentives that destroy our desire to do the right thing.

Incentives and the War on Moral Will:

  • motivational competition (two reasons are better than one?) “What is my responsibility?” versus “What serves my interests?”

I will categorically state that if I got paid a bonus for writing a blog, I would probably start treating it as piece-work and demanding payment by the word.  I know that the quality of what I am writing would suffer.  If I knew that I could get extra credits for attending online conferences and moderating twitter discussions, I’d be all over it… Actually, no I wouldn’t.  I would stop it altogether because it would no longer have any meaning for me.  I might go through the motions if it was mandated, but…

Remoralizing work:

  • celebrate moral exemplars
  • Aaron Feuerstein and Malden Mills

This speaks for itself, both in terms of increasing morale and introducing a moral dimension to the workplace.  For UK readers, or others, who are unfamiliar with the Aaron Feuerstein story, here is a link to start with.

Unless the people you are working with are behind you, it will fail. Different people in different communities organize their lives in different ways.

Is the staff, are the parents, are the students behind the ‘vision’?  What works in London is not necessarily going to apply in Halkyn, and vice versa.  As one of the sources of education for the community, schools are probably well placed to decide what really works for everyone.  However, schools are not the only source of education in the community.  We would do well to remember this!

Paying attention to what we do, to how we do it, to structure of the organizations in which we work, so as to make sure that it enables us and other people to develop wisdom.

Well, this brings me back to the words I chose for the title.  In times of uncertainty and change, it is especially important to be kind to one another.  Tell someone if you think they have been unkind.  I did this today, and it turned out that it was something I had misunderstood because of missing context.  I could have got really worked up about it and ignored the comment and the person, but I challenged what had been said.  Thankfully, everything was worked out with no blood lost!  People are not psychic – they cannot guess how you feel, especially if they don’t know you!  Take more care with what you do, think about things carefully and critically before taking action.  And, at least, try to empathize with the people around you, whatever their position or status, if you can start to see the world through their eyes, then times will certainly become more interesting and less worrying.

Aristotle summed it up in one word: φρόνησις


8 responses to “Kindness, Care and Empathy

  1. First time reader of your blog, so I am just getting a feel for what is important to you. However, it seems clear that you would greatly enjoy a classic from ancient China that almost all Asian businesses form their leadership and governing principals on: TaoDeChing – by Lao Tze
    The link is an adequate translation but check your book store to get the true poetry of the writing. It has been invaluable to me as a teacher, boss, and leader.

    • There is probably quite a lot that could be learned here in the UK from some of the Asian leadership principles, David. Not all the Japanese companies I came across necessarily adopted Lao Tze’s ideas either, though! I am already familiar with most of the Tao De Ching, but other readers may welcome the chance to explore it for themselves. Thanks for the link and for taking the time to leave a comment.

  2. Hi Colin,
    This is a fantastic post! We have so much to thank you for here. First off, thanks for pointing out the Barry Schwartz TED talk. Your notes and questions add much to it. One thing that’s interesting about your post is that you talk about recognising that people are not psychic, and therefore we need to be honest with each other, while at the same time you advocate empathy – which means being a bit psychic, don’t you think? As you know after living in Japan for nearly a decade (13 years for me!), 以心伝心 (Ishin-denshin) is essential for getting along in Japanese society. Tom Merner once explained it to me by saying that it was a kind of empathy, and I’ve heard Japanese explain it as “communication of the heart”, which sounds to me like empathy. Don’t you think that Ishin-denshin could be a kind of wisdom too?
    Not sure I’ve made myself clear here, and I apologise, but as you may recall, I often make things clear for myself through discussion, so I hope you’ll be patient, and reply.

    • Hi Mick,
      Lovely to hear from you and glad you managed to find your way to my blog! Thanks for your kind comments.

      Is being empathetic a bit like being psychic? That is an interesting way of looking at empathy/ESP (not English for Specific Purposes, for once!). If I had to define or analogize empathy, I think I’d probably say its closest cousin is experience. If you haven’t experienced a similar situation to someone else, then I don’t think you have any chance of being able to empathize. The borders between empathy and sympathy are often confused too!

      When you get into discussions of 以心伝心, then several points need to be addressed. Firstly, this is one of the ubiquitous four-character ‘proverbs’ that are so beloved in Japan. Often, I felt that Japanese speakers used these as a kind of shorthand, in the same way that we might say “Too many cooks” or “Two birds”. Interestingly, it seems that English speakers rarely use the proverb in its complete form (if anyone doubts this, try a corpus search!), but the proverbs are a part of the culture. Without wanting to stereotype anyone, I think it would be fair to say that Japanese society has traditionally been of the ‘one mind’ approach where individuality (disharmony) is strongly discouraged, whereas American culture (US here, Canadians are slightly different 😉 ) seems to be particularly individualistic (e pluribus unum would be a better motto for Japan!).

      The fact that you/Tom said: “… is a kind of empathy” also suggests cultural connotations which are not there for non-Japanese people. 伝 could translate, roughly, as: communication, connection,… not to mention legend or comment or … 心 is often used in Japanese academic words where the English equivalent uses psych-, rather than soph- (compare psychology with philosophy or sophistry for example). So mind/heart/soul…

      I would say 以心伝心 could be explained in English as “telepathy, shared understanding, sympathy or communication between two minds“. Shared understanding is close to empathy, but not quite the same for me! It would probably be a big help if more people were psychic, and the cultural inhibitions or pragmatic conversation ‘rules’ were not there!

      Is 以心伝心 a kind of wisdom? Well if wisdom is related to soph- as it seems to be in our cultural backgrounds (Western for lack of a better term), then no. But there is more to wisdom than just the mind, which brings us back to Aristotle…


  3. Wow Colin what a lot to digest, it’s still only 8 am here and I’m still suffering from jet lag 🙂 Thanks!
    I must admit, I’ve not studied much philosophy – only a bit in my literature, criticism, poli sci and theology classes. Once I decided the priesthood wasn’t for me I didn’t see the use of studying philosophy LOL! So, I had to remind myself of what sophism was all about.
    Oh btw, the wikipedia article on Sophism claims that the Sophists were social constructionists. I thought that was interesting.
    Rather amazingly, since I’ve been in Japan for 13 years now, I’ve only recently learned that 心 can be used to mean psych- as you mentioned above. I learned it when I started asking students about their other classes eg. “What’s your next class?” I find this difference interesting. Of course, as I think you implied before, 心 isn’t exactly heart, so it would be erroneous to extrapolate from here that Japanese see psychology as a study of emotion more than a study of thought and reason. Although I must say I think human beings think with their hearts and not with their heads, but that’s just me.
    Anyway, perhaps 以心伝心 isn’t exactly empathy or wisdom, but could the practice of it lead to empathy and wisdom? I wonder.
    Finally, just a quick note regarding your nod to Canadians. Thanks for that, and just to clarify, I would say that for Canadians of my generation and older, there is actually a huge difference between Americans and Canadians in regard to individualism. This may be changing, but if it is I don’t think the change is happening only in Canada. I think it’s happening in a lot of places. Nevertheless, this may in fact be the only really easily definable difference between Americans and Canadians. Consider “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” with “Peace, Order, and Good Government”. I would argue that if we were to place America and Japan at opposite ends of a continuum, Canada would be somewhere in the middle. Closer to the American end, and getting closer all the time, perhaps, but the difference is more than slight. Anyway, apologies for that. I know many people find a Canadian’s need to assert their individuality rather boring – but in this case it’s ironic don’t you think ? 😉
    @enpsteacher gives an interesting historical background of American individualism on this interesting post from What Ed Said
    Well that’s enough for now.

    • I don’t think the ‘seat of thought’ will ever be definitively identified, Mick! The best we can say just now is that it is based on a series of biochemical reactions.

      I have already read the post you mentioned, and David’s comments related to the bunch of rich guys who didn’t want to pay their taxes 😉 actually made me think: They’re just being Bolshie and then I thought “Whoa!” since the большевики (OK, Bolsheviks, just showing off!) were also part of a revolution, albeit on the other side end of the political spectrum!

      “perhaps 以心伝心 isn’t exactly empathy or wisdom, but could the practice of it lead to empathy and wisdom?”

      The key for me is the repetition of 心, whatever word we may assign it in English. Two hearts/minds/souls sharing something is what it embodies. Communication does not have to mean agreement, but it does require exchange. The more people share ideas, feelings, reactions, and so on, the closer we will come to a shared understanding/empathy. Moreover, that process of sharing could certainly lead to greater wisdom.

      One other thought, when you (=anyone reading this) express an opinion do you use “I think”, “I feel”, “I believe” or something else…? Another philosophical point, for another post maybe…

  4. Loved your insights. I too have been out of my country for a while. I sometimes wonder what some teachers want from their “teacher job”. I just want to see my students make progress and actually enjoy learning. I sometimes wonder about others.

    I plan on keeping up on your blog. Thanks!

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