Empathy or Sympathy?

“I don’t participate in anti-war demonstrations…As soon as you have a pro peace rally, I’ll be there.” Mother Teresa

A group of people who #GAF came together to think about how we can turn simply caring into action. This Saturday’s topic was “Beyond the Bake Sale: A Pedagogy of Possibility.” This topic made me nervous as I am continually searching my soul to understand why I am giving my time to charity. Am I doing it out of a selfish need to make myself feel better or a naive assumption that I can change the world? I’m hardly Mother Teresa… what can I do? Volunteers, Natalia from Crossroads and Gary from Lincs2Nepal, took us through how they use themselves to serve the world and we, as educators, were challenged to explore how we could too.

The most powerful learning for me came from immersion. Natalia split us into two groups and gave us a new identity. My group were given a new language and a very simple goal in life. We had to trade cards until we had a full set. We were told when visitors from the other culture came, they would have cards with them. They might have the card we need. When the visitors came, we pounced on them, stole their cards and ignored them once we got what we wanted. We weren’t told to behave like that – we just did. When I visited their culture, they pounced on me in a different way. It was all hugs and kisses followed by mad rants about the men that they served. I couldn’t get back to my trading cards quick enough! My culture might have been cold but at least I understood it. Natalia had immersed us in the experience of being an outsider and it felt really real.


Making it real provoked empathy, not sympathy. When we set up situations in school such as bake sales or non-uniform days to raise money for those less fortunate, it is sympathy that drives us, not empathy. We put our pound in the tin, think about the poor people and then go home to watch Emmerdale on our 50 inch flat screens. The above immersion helped us to make sense of how refugees feel rather than just giving money because we know they are in a bad way. We didn’t just unpick why we should give them money. We unpicked the issues they face and how we might overcome barriers based upon our experience. The idea behind #nakedteachingday was to immerse yourself in what it may be like to have nothing. The reality was that this day turned out to be quite fun. The resources had been put away but they were still there really. We can never understand what other people go through if we are not living it ourselves but we can gain an insight into the problems in order to unpick solutions.

“Be you and Serve” – David Begbie, Crossroads

These words helped my fear. “Be you and serve.” “If they wanted me to be Mother Teresa it would be awkward.” I’m no Mother Teresa (that’s for sure) and that’s okay. We all have something that can serve the world. Supermarkets have leftovers that can serve the poor. People have old clothes that can keep the homeless warm. I have an understanding of the connections that can be made to make learning powerful and an ability to teach others to do this too.

Mother Teresa’s words were brought back to me when I listened to Gary, “These aren’t your typical images of poor people. These are images of the work we have done that has made a difference to their lives.” Lincs2Nepal didn’t throw money at a crisis. They immersed themselves and found solutions. Children were losing limbs due to lack of shoes – they found them shoes. People were dying from cold – they built shelters and found warm clothes. It doesn’t have to be huge, but if you can do something, you should. Cash was needed for their projects and somebody had to hold a bake sale or just give to an online campaign. Be you and serve.



My table discussed that, as educators, that is what we have to give…. education. We have the power to choose to educate our pupils beyond the exam. We can continue to hold fundraising days but we can also go much deeper. This shouldn’t be an education of sympathy for what is going wrong, filled with images of skinny children dying to provoke hands going into pockets. This should be an education of the power they have to get things right. The opportunity to help them understand the world and allow them to practise skills of listening, questioning and solving problems. To know that if their skill is maths, science, banking, supermarket worker… it can all be used to serve. We might not be able to teach them empathy if they are not in need. We can get them to understand the needs of others and how to serve if we provide the right experiences.

Right now, I have time to give to the teachers of Ghana and I have ideas to share. Point is, I am going to return home. I can’t afford to keep giving my time forever or I would have no home to go to. That’s not realistic. When I return, I could give myself a pat on the back and go on with my privileged life knowing that I have done my bit. Or… I can use what I have as an educator to teach the next generation how they can serve. Not as a mission worker but as me – a teacher. Two weeks is not enough time to truly immerse myself in Ghana but I can listen and learn to understand. Then, I can use my knowledge to educate the pupils I have real empathy with: The “Young, Gifted and Bored” children of the UK. If you listen to David Begbie, you hear how connections can be made to help us all serve. There is enough to go around if we all work out what we have to give, where it is needed and make connections to get it there.

School leaders can design a curriculum that allows our children to fix real problems, listen and understand, give their time, know that they have something to give and that they can get out and give it. I want to be that school leader. Spending a year on supply gave me the empathy I needed to train struggling teachers but not the power I need to make a real difference. Tutor time is not always as purposeful as it could be. PHSE/ tutor time/ whatever you are doing could become real. Walk into any big city and you will see that the problems of this world are not as far away as Ghana or Nepal. Homelessness, drugs, fear, desperation, depression, ageing population, lack of work opportunities, lack of space for children to play safely… there’s plenty of that just down the road.

Teaching facts about Henry the VIII or favelas might help them pass an exam but will it help them serve? How could a lesson about a dead king teach us how to live more purposeful lives? How could we immerse children in the experience of a favela so that we can get them to feel more than just sympathy? We shouldn’t feel guilty for what we have but we should feel gratitude. What other opportunities are there already in our curriculum that could allow them to be immersed in real life problems without taking away from the knowledge needed to pass the exam? Economy in maths, outsiders in MFL, other cultures in English, morality in science…Lots! The topics are already there and none of this serving stuff has to take away from academic achievement. They could unlock powerful solutions if we let them.

We still need money to reach our target of taking a container of classroom supplies with us to Ghana. They need it. We are trying to supply it. If you want to hold a bake sale, just give, give up your resources or just put the solution in the hands of your tutor group. We would be grateful for you doing whatever you can do.



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