How can we empathise, if we have never known?

There have been many tragedies around the world in recent years – tsunamis, bombings, floods, droughts, eruptions and earthquakes. There is a tendency to hear, to sympathise, to help if we can, and then to “forget” and get on with our own lives.

It still rings as sad for me today as when I saw the devastation, first-hand, on the south coast communities three months after it had happened. The burnt brown line was still evident on the hillsides at the level the water rose to. The sight of demolished homes – just the concrete floors left – and the absence of people along the coast, made you ask the question – Where are they now?

A drive up the roads inland to higher ground revealed communities completely relocated away from the danger zone. They had to start from scratch – rebuilding lives and homes. For some, they had to do this among the sadness that had gripped their lives as they mourned lost family members.

I don’t think we can really ever fully empathise unless we have been through something like this ourselves. I have visited these communities three times over the last year and some of the cars and homes are still where they were left after the water receded – up against a tree on the waterfront, or washed up inland to the foot on the cliff.

I watched in horror tonight as locals counted the number of cars that were swept past their second floor offices in the Toowoomba floods in Australia this week. They were not facing the bodies others had already experienced, so it was more a game to watch, than a reality they were living through. Unless you have been involved in it, you will probably forget all about it in a few weeks time.

I think this can be the same for some teachers who have never had a gifted child in their class before. It is something that they have never experienced so, in an effort to understand the differences, they try to reframe them into a perspective they do understand. Differences in focus are classified as unusual, or even deliberate misbehaviour. The intensity to which they hold their focus for topics they enjoy is compared to their flightiness in other subject areas, and they are immediately expected to have the same focus in all topics – I mean, “if you can do it one day, why can’t you do it another?”

When you have been a parent who has lived with the child 24/7 for at least five years before they start school, then you might have some understanding of how intense these little people can be. But parents are so often overlooked as a resource to help understand the gifted child. These children are different for all their lives (not just when it doesn’t suit your programme at school) so understanding them is essential for them to be accepted, where ever they are.

I am not saying the gifted shouldn’t learn to respect how their differences affect others in their school. This is a must, and just as important as us learning to understand them.

At the end of the video of the Samoan tragedy, you saw the Apia city grocer loading bulk food onto his truck to take straight out to the stricken areas. No guarantee of payment for any of it – but a man who empathised with what it would be like for the people, and acting accordingly.

To give children the best we can for them each year, it is up to us as teachers to really get to know them as early as possible in the year. Start by finding out who you will be having at the end of the previous year, when possible, and make a special effort for those who seemed to struggle for some reason in their previous year. Contact parents early if you find something not right in the new year. Ask them how they deal with any unusual behaviours at home – but be prepared to hear they don’t happen there. This can be completely true, because they are not amongst twenty or so other children competing for one adult’s time at home. But it could also be the opposite, and parents who may have suffered from similar difficulties themselves at school may be too embarrassed to admit it. You will need to approach these things with care and sensitivity to encourage an honest, open relationship.

When we have walked a mile in their shoes, we are much better able to comment constructively on changes that might help. Until then, we have to accept that parents have given us the responsibility of educating their child, and we must be as professional as we can.

Just another point worth thinking about … online.