Teaching empathy to move beyond our bubble

The word of the week seems to be  ‘bubble’ Not the soft soapy kind that children play with or that helps us to clean, but a hard, impermeable shell that stops us from understanding and knowing each other. The leaders in two schools, I have worked in this week, have spoken about ‘our school bubble’.  By this they mean that they are a good school in a nice, affluent area and so, for some members of their community, there is no perceived need for change. This ‘niceness’ both prevents the children (and their parents) from wanting to know about the world and creates a feeling they need to be protected from it.

I also heard the word ‘bubble’ being used by my wonderful student rabbi as she ends her time serving my South London community.  She spoke of growing up in the North-West London Jewish Bubble where everyone was, or seem to be Jewish, even the non-Jews, where it took less effort to be Jewish and there was less need to interact with non-Jews. But how much she had learnt from our community where our teenagers are often the only Jew in the school, we have to travel to meet and we are in constant interaction with non-Jews.

Most tellingly, I have heard the word ‘bubble’ used to describe the socially divided communities of North Kensington. It has been a horrendous few weeks – terrorist attacks, an extraordinary general election and now the Grenfell Fire. There is talk of a broken country. All falling around the anniversaries of the highly divisive Brexit vote, which I think can fairly be describe more as a vote against ‘something’ than a vote for leaving Europe, and the tragic death of Jo Cox.

There are few positives we can draw from the horrors of the last few weeks. They include the coming together of the Manchester community; fire, police, medical staff and members of the public running into danger to help others, the huge local community support offered, and still being offered to the Grenfell victims and the events being held under the banner of ‘The Great Get Together.’ We need to think how we channel and build on these things to help our children understand and appreciate each other, so they can feel safe in our world.

In schools, one of our raison d’etre is to teach children about the world. This must involve challenging and breaking down the ‘bubble’ mentality. It is clear the wealth and class barriers of North Kensington harm and diminish both communities. If we live without knowledge and understanding of the other, it can become fear which, unfortunately can lead to violence. The fear of terrorism and the fear and anger that leads to it work against us understanding each other. The language of ‘the other’ to describe those not in our bubble is dangerous and is reinforced through social media echo chambers.  If we are not to live in bubbles, that exclude us from those around us, we must talk to and learn about each other.

In the amazing coming together after the Manchester Arena attack the Manchester poet, Tony Walsh aka Longfella, exhorted us to ‘Choose Love’. Making a choice without knowledge is a guess. It could be argued that this is what happened with the Brexit vote. For us to support children to choose love over hate, they need to know about and access the wider world.

One of the key elements in the PREVENT strategy and the work done by the Channel programme, as part of it, is to challenge misconceptions about others in the community and wider world. To reduce fear and misunderstanding by increasing knowledge of the other. The 2006 Education Act included a duty for schools to promote community cohesion, though that seems to have faded. It is the language and perception of those around us as ‘other’, outside our bubble and our experience that is damaging our society.

Schools don’t need new initiatives and responsibilities to promote community cohesion. Those are already in place. Teachers cannot take responsibility for all the ills of society, so often laid at their door. However, if they are allowed to do their job, they can sow the seeds to change, develop empathy. But we do need time, space and permission to do that. To focus on the core values that underlie education. To promote as Jo Cox described it:

We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.

This means that teachers need to be able to create links with other schools, not only in other countries and other parts of this country, but within our own communities. We need to be able to take children to visit places of interest and significance, but also places that expose them to new people and new experiences. By doing this we can support children to understand more about each other, what we have in common and why we are different. By broadening children’s world views and knowledge, we can equip them with the knowledge and understanding of others to choose love as an educated choice, to understand and empathise with their neighbours.

We need to support children to see and understand what they have in common, rather than focus on what divides us, and where we are different to understand why. In so doing, we can challenge the bubble mentality and hopefully move forward.

 

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