If you want your students to empathise with others, they need to mix with others. Sophie takes her students to their local care home and it has been a great success.
I have just returned from one of my monthly visits to the local care home, where I take Year 12 members of our school’s Wellbeing Group to spend around 50 minutes in the company of the residents, exchanging stories about their lives and generally getting to know one another. We are lucky that we have a residential home just across the road from school, meaning that the level of work involved in organising these visits is relatively little, and there is no cost at all. And yet, it brings such joy to everyone involved, myself included, that I feel compelled to encourage more schools to incorporate such a scheme.
If you are familiar with the NHS’s ‘Five steps to mental wellbeing’, you will know that two of the steps are ‘connect’ and ‘give to others’. In giving our time and attention to another person, we feel happy in a deeper sense than material wealth can provide. The first question I was asked after our last visit was, ‘Can we go again?’, and the smiles on my pupils faces, as well as the question, were genuine. I have a list of pupils waiting to visit the home, and some of them have been back several times. I’m not allowed to share photographs of the residents online, but please take my word for it when I say that the room was buzzing with conversation, so much so that the pupils were surprised when I announced that it was already 4.45 and we had to leave. It is clear that the pupils enjoy their time there, and are not going out of a sense of duty, as the visits always take place after school, so they choose to remain behind to go.
This is not to say, however, that their motives are always entirely altruistic. Many of the pupils in our school wish to become doctors, so such a project allows them access to the types of people they will be working with in future. They learn how to communicate effectively with the elderly, and gain experience of speaking to those living with dementia. They listen to the types of health problems they have, and the effect this has on their day-to-day lives, plus gain valuable experience to bring to university and employment interviews.
However, there are those who are not necessarily looking to go into medicine who can benefit beyond simply feeling good about themselves, as talking to the residents requires the ability to speak loudly and clearly, something which teenagers aren’t always confident doing when in unfamiliar company. In addition, they need to be able to make conversation, as the residents often rely on them to do this, and be able to cope socially if the resident says something unexpected. What I often find is that in the first few minutes, there are often awkward silences, and the pupils like me to take the lead, but after a while, everyone relaxes a little more and soon the member of staff there and I sit back and watch the conversation flow naturally: It is a delight.
Therefore, I invite you to consider whether you might find the time to start a similar scheme. Setting up a partnership with a care home takes just one phonecall or meeting, and the visit itself, plus the associated planning, takes in total no more than an hour-and-a-half per month. The wellbeing of everyone involved – you included – is enhanced, and furthermore, the pupils have the opportunity to learn how to adjust their communication skills for a different kind of conversation partner. We must continue to use projects such as these as a reminder that an education is often borne of experience, and a fulfilling life cannot wholly be defined by academic or professional success. We must continue to find ways to help our pupils develop empathy, as it is this, combined with intellect, which will build a better world.