One of the hardest lessons to teach at school is empathy. As a school that values holistic education, this is an aspect that needs to be considered.

At Verdala International School (VIS) we try to tackle this challenging concept with a three-pronged approach; firstly sharing perspectives – in any subject or class, discussion is valued as part of the educational experience; secondly, we prioritise the well-being of all our students by supporting them through counselling and useful real-life Personal Social Health Education (PSHE) lessons.

Finally, our VISserves programme, which aims to take our students beyond the bubble of the school to notice and connect to the world they live in, by visiting an old people’s home, a migrant centre or making a difference to the environment.

Yet, we are realistic; empathy is nurtured and encouraged, but teenagers can be intrinsically selfish, and learning how to be empathetic can be a journey of a lifetime.

When the COVID-19 virus first came to our attention, it felt abstract, so we pro-actively spoke to our students through our PSHE classes about the science of the virus, the international impact, and their fears about it spreading; yet for many it was too far away to worry about. It probably wasn’t until it hit northern Italy that our community started to feel real concern.

Life started to become inconvenient for those in quarantine, while anxiety was increasing in those with family in Italy, then Germany, then Spain, the UK, the US… and the list started to grow longer.

From a teenagers’ perspective real awareness only comes with personal impact or mature insight. Over time, I have noticed an emotional shift occurring among the community, as families start to feel the pain of knowing someone who has contracted the virus, the fear that accompanies this experience and those that have sadly lost family members or good friends.

With 47 nationalities, the personal experiences are becoming more regular, and the hurt for those so far away from home, unable to say goodbye properly, is particularly raw.

Now the world is different; we see people wearing gloves and masks, scary conversations are being had at the dinner table, on the phone or over Zoom, when adults think their children aren’t listening, but they are.

At VIS we are committed to supporting our students through the waves of emotion that have accompanied this crisis as the weeks go by. The initial adrenalin rush of school closing and staying home is over. The impact of months and months of not seeing friends and missing out on taking exams are all steps in the grief process represented by the loss of what was normal.

We ensured that within our adapted timetable there is time every day for the homeroom teacher to connect with the class for at least 15 minutes, to touch base and check in.

In addition, our counselling team stepped into committed crisis mode with a strategy that aimed to stay connected and support the students at home. By Easter, every secondary student (aged 11 to 18) had spent time with a counsellor on a one-to-one basis, giving them an opportunity to share their feelings, good, bad, indifferent.

Class teachers in primary have been setting up one-to-ones with their pupils to establish a baseline. Follow-ups with pupils of concern has been a priority as we continue to ensure that no child is left behind to cope alone.

Our nurse pops in to all the classes to answer questions about fake news, debunking myths and allaying fears.

In Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené Brown states: “Empathy is a strange and powerful thing… It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone’.”

During this crisis it is paramount that as a school we remain connected to the students, that they have opportunity to share their feelings and express themselves. We need to keep their education moving forward but we also need to be there for them, help them build the resilience to cope with this massive change of pace, help them control the things they can, and understand the things they can’t.

Schools need to provide the space for this to happen, and then empathy will be learnt as part of the course, while also ensuring that the generation of young people wading their way through this uncertain time remains grounded and hopeful.

Totty Aris, head, Verdala International School, Pembroke

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