Building that empathetic bridge

It’s a truism that is repeated in different ways: that what we remember most is not necessarily what people say but how they make us feel. Or that the teachers who make the strongest impression on us are those who made us feel valued, those who made us feel like we could achieve something. Conversely, those who do the exact opposite also make a strong impression on us, in entirely undesirable ways!

That special bond that is built between the teacher and each individual student in her classroom becomes the bridge across which other inputs – the academic ones – can be delivered. It’s amazing how, despite the large sizes of our classes, so many teachers manage to do this, year after year. But it’s equally unfortunate that so often, that empathetic bridge fails to come into being. There are many reasons for this failure: the unreasonable expectations of “the system”, the pressures from parents and society in general, the poor working conditions and the long hours…. and the consequences can be dire. Some children have the smarts and the inner resources to manage, others get their emotional sustenance from family and peer networks, but then some fall between the cracks, neither seeking support nor showing that they need it.

In primary school, teachers spend a lot of emotional energy getting their students to feel comfortable, allaying fears that are spoken and unspoken, easing the transition for the child from home to the unfamiliar environment of the school. But as the children grow older, the focus shifts to their intellectual development, and more often than not, teachers have little time or energy left to deal with emotional, psychological or social issues, even when they do recognize that it may be needed. That’s not their job. It’s the job of the counsellor. If, that is, the school is lucky enough to have one that is available on a regular basis.

Counselling draws on a specific competence that is acquired through training, and the value of a professional counsellor cannot be overstated. While schools need to make space for counsellors and encourage students to use counselling services, they also need to sensitize the entire teaching community to how and where the counsellor can step in. A counsellor can do her job best only if the larger environment accommodates, supports and extends her inputs. In many cases, this begins with an empathetic teacher who senses a student’s need.

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