Look out for me. You will not see my face, but you will be able to recognise me by my toes and nail varnish!
These words were recounted by Annabel Taylor Ross, Head of PSHE at Blundell’s School, Tiverton, as she shared a story with 86, spellbound Year 9s, during the debrief of the immersive poverty empathy exercise they’d just taken part in.
They were spoken to Annabel by an inspirational Afghan woman, Suraya Pakzad, whom she’d met once whilst working in Afghanistan.
Suraya was fighting for girls education in a country where women and girls’ rights were, and indeed still are, severely restricted. At the time, the education of girls was completely outlawed. Women weren’t allowed to leave their homes unless they wore a full burqa. So when Suraya came to meet Annabel, she was completely hidden by the burqa save for her feet. The only way Annabel could identify her was by her painted toes!
This surreptitious meeting allowed Suraya to share with Annabel her vision to transform her community through education, one girl at a time. In 1998 she founded Voice of Women Organisation and ever since, at great risk to her own life, Suraya has struggled tirelessly for the rights of girls and women in her home country. In the last decade women’s rights in Afghanistan have gradually improved, however, 85% of women still have no formal education and are illiterate. Annabel’s encounter with Suraya touched her heart. Her desire, through the re-telling of the story to her PSHE students, was that it would touch their hearts too and stir them to action.
For Annabel, having served in the army and later in development, teaching children PSHE at Blundells requires significantly more than the usual classroom practices. She believes that empathy is crucial in order to build real understanding and to drive transformative action. Annabel wanted her students to ‘feel’ the desperation that so often characterises poverty.
To those ends she arranged for Empathy Action to design and run a ‘poverty day’ at Blundell’s, to help teach her students empathy…empathy with the poor and the refugee, empathy with those less privileged than ourselves. As well as The Poverty Trap simulation which provides teachers like Annabel with a powerful platform to connect with their students, the day also incorporated different empathy activities, including; immersive workshops, eating ‘slum lunch’ and engaging with a film about refugees.
Annabel is not alone in her belief of the importance and need for empathy in schools. A Headteacher, Andrew Halls from King’s College School in Wimbledon, has recently commissioned lessons in empathy for his pupils, to help combat the ‘Empathy Deficit‘. Geography Departments and Global Citizenship classes are also beginning to employ empathy mechanisms to teach their students about the realities of poverty as opposed to simply relaying statistics and textbook interpretations. In an ocean of information, deeper, meaningful understanding has become scarce, and in response, educators, business leaders and humanitarians are now seeking to bring empathy-based understanding back into their classrooms, boardrooms and learning spaces.
At last year’s UN World Humanitarian Summit Empathy Action made a pledge to champion empathy in places of education, the work space and humanitarian arenas. We pledged to work towards not only increasing understanding and compassion, but, most importantly, to do everything in our power to catalyse a surge of ’empathy actions’ to help combat global deprivation.
As one Year 9 told Annabel after taking part in the Poverty Day:
After experiencing the Empathy Action Day this Monday, and getting an opportunity to have a very small insight of the… slums and… life as refugees, I decided that I wanted to do something… I would really like to donate my personal money to a charity or an organisation to support the ones in need – especially the ones that live in slums and the refugees. I would like to donate monthly… I really wish to help… even if my help…is very small… Thank you so much for giving us all the chance to experience such things, I truly think that it was one of the best moments in my life where I got to realise something that I would never have without the help of someone else – someone wise.
If you are a PSHE or Geography teacher interested in an empathy programme for your school, or perhaps an organisation looking to arrange a meaningful activity for your team, please get in touch with us, we’d love to help out.