Irish Teacher: Celebrities, please don’t sell resources about empathy to teachers 

I don’t enjoy feeling cynical. But I feel a surge of resistance when I hear celebrities promoting resources on wellbeing and empathy in schools.
Irish Teacher: Celebrities, please don’t sell resources about empathy to teachers 

I don’t enjoy feeling cynical. But I feel a surge of resistance when I hear celebrities promoting resources on wellbeing and empathy in schools.

It’s odd because I champion the same things. Relationships are central to education. Kindness and empathy are the qualities that will ensure our survival as a species.

What’s my problem, then? The more the merrier, right? Fighting the good fight?

My first issue is that this external involvement when it comes to wellbeing, implies that teachers aren’t doing the work already. 

They are. Most of us teachers in 2022 are painfully aware of the need to build empathy.

A greater irritation perhaps is that the people producing resources aren’t standing up against the lack of empathy in our system too.

The lack of kindness shown to the child who might like to attend a local school but can’t because he’s a boy. 

The Catholic child who’d like to attend her local school but can’t because it’s Protestant. 

The poor child who’d like to attend his best friend’s school but can’t because he’s not wealthy enough. 

The child who despises a compulsory subject at Leaving Cert but must do it to qualify in something entirely unrelated. 

The child who desperately needs supports that never come. 

The child who might like to see a teacher remotely resembling herself.

Celebrities – please don’t sell resources about kindness and empathy unless you’re doing something to interrogate this system. Don’t sell empathy unless you are screaming about the injustice that is the current CAO mess. Don’t patronise the people who live education every day.

Producers of such resources are well-meaning, and they may see great results; I hope they do. But there’s a darker side to this Edu business. 

According to educator Declan McKenna, “Edu business has an increasing hand in the state provision of educational supports.” 

This is particularly true when it comes to wellbeing, largely because resources provided by the Department are so scarce, so undeveloped, and because teachers are given no compulsory training in the subject. 

I’d argue that instead of private individuals producing ad hoc resources, we need genuine supports for children alongside adequate teacher training. 

As McKenna says, we must “acknowledge that educational achievement goes in tandem with wider societal and community support.” 

And the lack of trust in teachers to know how to do their job goes far beyond the teaching of wellbeing. For the most part, teacher training is outsourced at cost to the school or the individual. 

As a Cork teacher myself, it usually means a day up to Dublin on the train. But the best continued professional development (CPD) exists within each school because teachers are experts in their field.

Hugh Coughlan is setting a fine example of appreciating the inherent value of teachers in North Presentation secondary school, Cork. Completing a master’s degree last year on peer observation, he used colleagues to trial the practice in-house. 

Peer observation involves teachers observing one another and providing constructive feedback. This year, it’s being rolled out to the whole school, alongside teaching and learning coordinator, Fiona Lawless.

“It allows for truly reflective practice. Instead of wasting time on one-size-fits-all sessions, we are making the most of dozens of experts in school. It’s powerful because it’s all about your own school, rather than being a kind of box-ticking exercise.” 

The assistant principal doesn’t claim it’s plain sailing. 

“Some teachers will fear judgement and you must make it easy for people to do. Time is so precious in school. But it’s manageable if you have buy-in from staff. 

"In our school it is a bottom-up initiative; we’re all doing it for our own benefit.” 

The school has created a simple form for teachers to fill out with a positive comment and a piece of advice. Every half-term someone both observes and is observed. In Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) they share resources and learn from each other in a way that builds collegiality and trust.

Ireland’s National Organisation for Teachers of English (INOTE) is also an empowering presence in post-primary education and is all about teachers learning from teachers: no hierarchy, just mutual respect for the craft. Conor Murphy and Patrick Huff deserve special mention for their work in my subject areas.

Teachers are experts. We need to trust them, encourage them to trust themselves, train them, provide adequate resources, and offer opportunities for collaboration and reflection.

Maybe I would champion celebrity involvement in education if the underlying system were empathetic and adequately supported and respected. But it isn’t.

My position, I hope, is less about cynicism and more to do with wanting real change, not add-ons, however well-intentioned.

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