Empathy and understanding

When I was relatively new to the teaching profession I remember someone saying ‘you can’t be a good teacher unless you’re a parent’. While obviously this isn’t true because you can be an amazing teacher still of course; in some ways non-parent teachers technically have a distinct advantage as they should be full of the energy and enthusiasm that has been drained in those with little sleep thieves and stress creators. However, the idea that non-parents have no stress in their lives is ridiculous so that argument is pretty much negated by the age of 25 regardless when general adulting comes into play. You know when you’re in situations and thinking, ‘shouldn’t an adult be doing this’, then realising that you are in fact said adult. Still, I remember 22 year old me and my young colleague being outraged at the time; how dare someone say we weren’t good teachers because we weren’t parents… 15 years later, while I don’t necessarily agree, I understand what they were getting at. I think it boils down to emotionally intelligence, which is something some people, parents or not, will never have.

Emotional Intelligence is:

“the ability to understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathise with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.”

Someone who isn’t a parent can empathise with a sleep deprived mum or dad of a child with behaviour issues just as easily as a parent but it takes a level of emotional intelligence or at least maturity. Looking back I didn’t have a great deal of emotional intelligence; I definitely didn’t have emotional maturity… Or maturity of any kind… still don’t. Whether or not the understanding of looking after children is gained through parenthood or just simply through age is one thing but I’ve met experienced teachers, who were parents, who lacked it completely. And I mean completely. So the concept that by becoming a parent gives you emotional intelligence is really pretty laughable. So what on Earth am I wittering on about?

Recently I have had an epiphany of sorts based on Isla and my teaching career. I understand the viewpoint of a parent I once thought was being awkward. Not because I’m a parent, because I am a parent of a child who has had many near death experiences and has spent a long time in hospital. This particular child had had a tough start to life as a baby, a few operations and more to come. Their behaviour wasn’t always the best and they were a bit behind academically… the mum didn’t care. I had to get this child up 2 sub-levels and their behaviour and attitude was ‘meh’ and so was their parent’s! It just wasn’t their priority; their priority was only if their child was happy and healthy. Golden child could do no wrong. Golden child was lucky to be alive after their start to life so if they messed about and had fun, so what? They deserved to have fun after all they’d been through. Made me so mad. 15 years later… I am that parent!

Ok, I’m not that parent completely; I would still support the teacher more often than not and I will still hold Isla to the highest standards I can expect of her… but she has been through so much and she deals with far more than 99% of 4 year olds, so in my eyes, she can get away with pretty much anything. Sometimes that’s hard to remember in the moment, especially when sleep deprived, but through my experience I now know how that parent felt. I know what it’s like to kiss my child goodbye. What it’s like to hand them over to a surgeon not knowing if they’ll come back alive. What it’s like to stand by their bed weeks at a time and listen to machines bing and keep them alive. That is empathy gained through experience. It doesn’t mean I’m emotionally intelligent, in fact I think I’m pretty autistic myself in many situations. Things are often black and white for me, but I can now relate to parents who have been to hell and back, or are still currently residing there. Saying that I’m not bad enough to walk in on a crying, grieving colleague and ask them if I can still do a lesson observation!

This week I re-started seeing a psychologist. A psychologist doesn’t have to be a parent or have gone through hell to empathise with you. They have, or the good ones anyway, have a next level of emotional intelligence. It did feel good to talk through things and to have my daily pressures and worries validated and understood. I do still see Isla’s life on a knife edge and I play a big part in keeping her leaning to the living side of things. Some days that in itself is exhausting. Having to have a plan incase the doctors don’t is part of my job. I try to stay one jump ahead in a specialised medical field. Some would say that’s unhealthy for me and I should leave it to the doctors and just be dad. Thing is, I’ve tried that. I’ve tried trusting them and going with their plans and it hasn’t worked too well so I now I always have a back up and a ‘let’s do this next’, rather than just waiting for them to tell me. I’ve had to become kind of numb to some things to do this and accept that Isla is a living medical experiment or an ‘anecdotal imperical’. This is where I can really appreciate just wanting your child to be happy and healthy. I think so much gets lost nowadays in expectations that we forget what life is about.

Earlier this week, a friend was telling me how tired they were because their child was teething but it was nothing compared to what I was dealing with. I think any parent knows a teething child is not something fun to deal with! It is so hard to compare rotten apples and rotten oranges… both are rotten and you just wouldn’t want to eat them. Not sleeping over stress and not sleeping over a teething, crying, distressed, pained baby ultimately has the same result – a tired person struggling to function the next day. Tired is tired is tired. It may be a different kind of tired but it doesn’t invalidate the other form. It’s horrible. Could a non-parent understand this? Could a non-parent relate to the parent of a teething baby and understand what hell it actually is? Possibly.

I remember the days

I’d like to think if I went back into teaching I would now be a better teacher and be able to empathise more with the children and parents. I’m happy to admit that I never put a huge onus on academic achievement when teaching. Of course I strived to educate the children, bring them on the 2 sub levels or more, but I always aimed to develop the whole child’s personality and make being in school fun… something I fear is becoming harder and harder every year for teachers. In an environment where strict good behaviour is expected it is very hard to allow for any relaxing of the rules for personal circumstances. Give one child an inch, the class will take a mile. I’d like to think I would spend more time with the ‘lower ability’ children and help to bring them on – given where Isla is developmentally I could now certainly relate to children being behind academically and needing more support. However, with 30 odd children (they’re not all odd) in your class this is hard. It makes me so glad Isla is at a school where she gets the time and attention to work on the next steps in her own personal development, rather than be dragged behind the rest or realistically forgotten about in mainstream. I say I’d like to think I would because I remember the pressures of teaching and being not being able to divide yourself 10 different ways. Having empathy and being able to apply it sometimes seem miles apart.

There is a massive dilemma, generally in life about empathy. How much do you let someone get away with due to their past, current or even future situation? Where do you draw the line? Knowing where to draw the line requires real emotional intelligence and leadership. Being able to control impulsive feelings and behaviours and following through on commitments while adapting to changing circumstances are real skills. Just because you know you should do something doesn’t mean you will, especially when you become overwhelmed by stress which can override your best intentions. Sometimes I have to take a step back and think about why I am feeling a certain way. I can still tell Isla off for some things like throwing her toys (something we’re trying to get her out of) but can I be mad about her waking up at 2 in the morning? After all she’s been through; When she can’t tell me what’s woke her up, how she’s feeling or what she wants. I can will her back to sleep all I want but if she’s full of the joys of spring in the middle of the night I can’t exactly be angry… that’s very hard though when you don’t go to bed until after her meds at 1 and she wants to play. She’s not being naughty, she just doesn’t understand.

If simplistically empathy is walking a mile in another person’s shoes then to walk a mile in Isla’s, I’m sorry I wouldn’t make it. Not just because they’re too small, I fear it would be too painful. She’s the strongest person I know and she doesn’t even know it. I wish I could speak to 22 year old me and explain how things are and understand what that parent was telling me back then. She did care about her child’s progress but it is so difficult for an outsider to recognise how far that child has come and what they’ve overcome unless you’ve been walking alongside them, sometimes sharing their shoes. I don’t want to get all Forrest Gumpy by telling you ‘can tell a lot about a person by their shoes, where they going, where they been’, but if everyone took a step back to see the path some people had to walk, and put themselves in their shoes, the world would be a much nicer place.

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