Empathy for the Devil

My only country

Is six feet high

And whether I love it or not

I’ll die

For its independence.

                                                                 ‘Patriot’ By Norman Maccaig

If I told you that I regularly buy The Observer what would you think? If I said that I loathed the current coalition Government and harumphed quietly at Newsnight and ranted at Question Time, would that add anything to the picture? I listen to Tom Waits and The Smiths. I liked The Wire. I wear dark rimmed specs, have a kindle and enjoy a latte; I feel slightly sorry for Ed Miliband and wish he was better, but loathe Tony Blair. What would you think? Some of you will recognise ‘my type’; others may empathise a little more. But some of you already have me tagged don’t you?

The recent media frenzy over Scottish Independence raised a few questions about polarisation for me and how comfortable we are in our own belief systems. When you filter something down to the simplicity of a Yes/No answer then you often fail to connect with the real issues.

In our daily lives, we like to read newspapers which we know will reflect our world views. We read books we think we should be reading. We befriend – both in social media and real life – those who are similar and ‘unfollow’ those with whom we disagree; because it is easier. It makes us feel that we are correct in the way we live our lives and that our views are sacrosanct. I’m no different. It’s just that it is beginning to worry me. When we become so entrenched in how we live our lives, how then can we expect empathy to thrive?

And it’s the same in Education, isn’t it? We hang out in the staff room with those who share our outlook and educational beliefs. We avoid those who may not see it the same way. Thus, we avoid the real conversations we need to have because it is deemed unprofessional to rock the boat. It might be controversial but I think we also tend to share our creative ideas with those who we think will be most receptive. An easy audience.

We then create a polarised education system; for example, those who like the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland and those who don’t; those who like Glow and those who don’t; those who think change is good and those who don’t. When people disagree with something you fundamentally agree with, how often have you taken it as a personal slight? How often has it been intended as a personal slight? Perhaps we need to toughen up and do better.

I think Teachmeet can really help here, especially the smaller, trimmed down, Teachmeet 365. I recently proposed a ‘Teachmeet plus partner’, sending the audience into a frenzy as they pictured prospective ‘significant others’ sitting alongside them at the next one. What I meant was a Teachmeet where the entry ‘fee’ was to bring one other person from your establishment who had never been to one before. Maybe then we can start to encourage others to join our conversation.

Teachmeet is often a pebble in an ocean. A pebble which starts ripples but, perhaps, only small ones. By sticking to our own beliefs we miss great opportunities for learning. We won’t always be able to reach out, but a little bit of empathy perhaps goes some of the way. As long as I don’t have to read The Daily Mail.

4 thoughts on “Empathy for the Devil

  1. Thought provoking piece Kenny and I agree, life is not a Yes or No situation, it’s not black or white – its’ a grey mishmash of contradictions that we all try to fathom!
    We all want to be loved, it’s easier to surround ourselves with people that say nice things about us (the truth can and does hurt) and it’s the easy life that most of us seek. But, I admire those who can stand up and say “NO, that’s not the way…”, it takes a lot of courage to stand up for your convictions, especially in a staff room or staff meeting, and especially when an opinion is rebuffed with “…when you’ve been teaching as long as I have …”.
    As someone of only 8 year experience in the classroom, social media, twitter and #tm365 has been a revelation to me and opened up a whole new world of opinion and thought from across the teaching spectrum. It’s made me think about my practise and about the principle and ideals I hold. It has given me the confidence to state my case publicly to fellow professional.
    I believe we should stick to our beliefs, but not fanatically, not to the point of creating a dogma. Beliefs are important, but we need to listen to others and adapt our beliefs and grow or become an irrelevance. #tm365 gives us this opportunity to share, adapt and grow and we need to spread the word and bring a partner to the next #tm365, let’s create critical mass!

  2. Cracking post, as ever.

    Perhaps the trouble is though, who would I approach to come to a TeachMeet with me…? It would perhaps be the people you describe above as those who we already “hang out in the staff room with [and] who share our outlook and educational beliefs”. Not sure what the answer to that is!!

    One of the most surprisingly enjoyable aspects of my role as a CfE DO was the drop-in sessions I did in the last six months. A room, me, a mixed group of teachers and a whole lot of very difficult questions. By that stage I was so confident with my understanding of CfE that I reveled in the cut and thrust of these sessions. As a result of these sessions, I honestly think we could do with a lot more opportunities to deal with the many difficult issues surrounding CfE head on…I’m not always convinced that TeachMeets are always currently these opportunities. Controversial?


    PS – Why is my blog not on that list over there? –>

  3. Hi Kenny,
    A famous quotation from Alvy Singer in Woody Allen’s fabulous ‘Annie Hall’ (1977) goes like this – ‘There’s an old joke – two elderly women are at Catskill Mountain Resort and one of them says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life: full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. The other important joke for me is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx, but I think it appears originally in Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious” and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life.’

    Alvy is trying to describe his disastrous record with women, but it could be applied to so many contexts. There are some people who just want to be allowed to stay in their comfort zone of negativity and, it could be argued, should be allowed to because sometimes such negativity can’t be cured and can be infectious. Your tm+1 is a brilliant suggestion and, as Fearghal says (I hope I’m not misinterpreting), you are most likely to ask someone for your +1 who is most likely to say yes, and they are most likely to be like-minded learning teachers who will engage with and enjoy the teachmeet experience. But that’s okay, isn’t it? Much more effective to change mindsets through practice, with small steps – figuratively, a la Catskill Mountain Resort, small portions of good food. And positivity can also be infectious if it’s allowed to flourish. I think what can be enervating and dispiriting is that negativity appears to have a confidence that enthusiasm doesn’t always possess, not least when promoting something untried and apparently quite different. That, for me, is one of the key functions of teachmeets or other similar teachmeet-style DMs, etc, or sites such as this blog and other blogs like pedagoo.org (and Fearghal Kelly’s excellent blog, the address for which is apparently over there now —>): they provide a forum where enthusiastic practitioners can share good practice and that is self-affirming, reassuring and very necessary at times of change, or at any time for truly reflective practitioners.

    Great, thoughtful post – as always – Mr P!
    Liz (Sorry it’s such a long response!)

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