Empathy shapes school culture

According to an extensive web survey I undertook last month, the most commonly used adjectives to describe school boards are (in descending order of frequency):

I found it disappointing that “empathetic” did not appear in that list.  Having worked with many school boards and leaders, I have come to realise how important it is for boards and leaders to demonstrate empathy if they are to function effectively, and how this can impact their entire school community.  

This is especially so when contentious issues are under consideration and tempers begin to rise.  It is important to remember that the opposite of unproductive anger is not artificial calmness, it is genuine empathy.

Empathy [noun]: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Empathy should always be one of the key defining characteristics of any school culture, and it flows from the school’s board and leaders.  Empathy is a key driver of balanced decision making by boards because it forces board members to reflect upon the impact their proposed decisions will have on individual people within the school’s community.

Let’s explore the importance of empathy in a little more depth.

On a morning just over ten years ago when I was working as Head of a large school in the United States, I was walking north along 13th Street in Philadelphia from my hotel to the venue of the NAIS conference I was attending.  On my way, I crossed a wide street known as Market Street.  It was not the corner in the photo shown below, but it looked very similar.

An elderly man was crossing the same street in the opposite direction, and as we approached each other on the pedestrian crossing in the middle of the road, he started swaying and then collapsed on to the road just a few feet in front of me.

Street corner in Philadelphia, USA.

I bent down to talk to him, but although he was lying face down on the street, I could see that he seemed to be unconscious.

To my amazement, no other pedestrian stopped.

I was worried that when the traffic lights changed, cars would start moving and the drivers might not see him lying on the road.  I stood up and called out to passers-by to help me move him to the side of the road.  A couple of men came across, and as we started to lift him up together, he regained some consciousness, so we helped him walk to the side of the road as we kept an eye open towards the movement of the cars which had begun swerving around us at unnervingly high speed.  We helped him sit down and we stayed with him for a while to make sure he was okay, which fortunately, he was.

I was telling my daughter about this incident a few days later, and her immediate response was “Dad, why didn’t you upload a Facebook post about it?”. 

To be honest, writing a Facebook post was probably the furthest thing from my mind at the time.  Upon reflection, however, I started asking myself what kind of message I would have posted, because the staggering aspect of the experience from my perspective was not that a man had collapsed in front of me on the roadway, but that no-one else stopped to help.  Where was the empathy?

Before my experience in Philadelphia, I would never have imagined a situation in which no pedestrian would stop and help an elderly man who had suddenly collapsed in the street.  Was my experience in Philadelphia an example of the self-centred individualism that is said to typify western societies (and especially the United States) according to some foreign commentators?

Interestingly, there is well-established research evidence that helps to answer that question.  In 1973, two researchers (JM Darley and CD Batson) conducted an experiment in a seminary to try and find a link between personality types and the likelihood of helping others in an emergency.  It has become known as the “Good Samaritan experiment”, although its more grandiose and official title is “A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behaviour”.

Whatever one’s religious stance, Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan presents an interesting model for relational behaviour.  Why did the priest and the Levite pass by the man who was lying injured beside the road after being attacked?  Were they just in a hurry and occupied by their busy thoughts and priorities?  Despite the ethnic antipathy of the era, why did the Samaritan stop?  Was he in less of a hurry – or did he possess some virtues that the others did not?

In their experiment, Darley and Batson proposed three hypotheses: (1) People thinking religious, ‘helping’ thoughts would still be no more likely than others to offer assistance, (2) People in a hurry will be less likely to offer aid than others, and (3) People who are religious because of what they can gain from their religion will be less likely to help others than people who are religious because of the intrinsic value of the religion or who are searching for meaning in life.

To conduct the experiment, Darley and Batson had the seminarians complete a questionnaire, after which they were told to walk across to a different building to complete the procedure.  Before they left the building, one group was told they would have to prepare a talk about seminary jobs, while the other group was told that they would need to prepare a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Within each group, there were two sub-groups, one of which was told the task was urgent while the other was given no message about urgency.

On the pathway between the two buildings, both groups encountered a man slumped in an alleyway.  He moaned and coughed twice as each group of seminarians approached him; maybe he was hurt, or maybe he was drunk.  The seminarians were observed and rated on a 5-point scale:

0 = failed to notice the victim as being in need

1 = perceived a need but did not offer aid

2 = did not stop but helped indirectly (told the aide upon arrival)

3 = stopped and asked the victim if he needed help

4 = after stopping, insisted on taking the victim inside, and then left him

5 = refused to leave the victim, or insisted on taking him somewhere

The results were, I think, fascinating.  

As I would have expected, the amount of rush that had been induced in the seminarians did have a major effect in whether or not they were willing to stop and help the victim.  Of greater interest, however, the task they had been given did not affect their willingness to stop, even when their task was to prepare a talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Overall, 40% offered some help to the victim.  In ‘low hurry’ situations, 63% helped, compared to 45% of ‘medium hurry’ situations and 10% of those in ‘high hurry’ situations.  There was no correlation between the religious types and helping behaviour.

I think it would be fascinating exercise to relate this experiment to people’s behaviour in schools, including at the board and leadership level.  After all, the actions and the empathy shown by school boards and leaders flow through to have a huge impact upon the culture, morale and cohesion of the entire school community.  

Does the ‘hurry’ that board members and school leaders sometimes feel to make a decision or finish a meeting reduce the empathy they might otherwise feel for those who will be affected by the decision?  Does any discussion on finances consider the human impact that ‘difficult but necessary’ cutbacks might have on the staff or students who are affected?

I wonder what the outcome would be in your school if the students were to participate in a similar experiment to that conducted by Darley and Batson – it could provide a fascinating measure of their empathy.

And I wonder also if the distribution of their parents would indicate a greater or a lesser willingness to stop and help than their children would show.

As the Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Adler said, “Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another” – to which I would add, empathy creates connection, compassion and community, three essential elements of any effective school.

-Dr Stephen Codrington 

Among the services we offer to support school boards and leaders are executive recruitment, mentoring of school leaders, and performance reviews of senior and middle-level leaders and school boards.

Evaluating student and staff empathy in a school can be a valuable component of a SMART appraisal in a school.

Advice on this and other aspects of effective leadership and school governance is also provided in the book “Optimal School Governance", which can be ordered directly through Pronins.

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