Conversations on Empathy: Andrew Rowlandson (Norwich School)


Andrew Rowlandson

Head of Fifth Form / Geography
Norwich School, UK

ThoughtBox Director Rachel Musson has been inviting school leaders to share their thoughts on the empathy deficit in schools, to explore some of the disconnections happening and to share best practice in their own schools for supporting empathy building within the school ethos.

Andrew Rowlandson and I had both attended a conference in London in October entitled “Tackling the Empathy Deficit in Schools” and I was thus keen to develop conversations with him, not just about his reflections on the conference, but also about his own experience as a pastoral leader at Norwich School, and his own reflections on the empathy deficit within the younger generation.

As the Head of Fifth Form (13-16 year olds) and a Geography teacher, Andrew has a clearly balanced focus on the emotional health of his students as well as the academic growth. The school itself has a strong focus on pastoral care, with scheduled PSHE lessons, a CV programme (which includes Philosophy for Children, outside speakers and community service action days) and a really inspiring focus on community and connection, with a message from the Headmaster talking about the “virtuous triangle of talented pupils, committed staff and supportive parents” at play within the school, recognising “the quality of human relationships which forms the special ingredient in the Norwich School recipe”.

Andrew talked about some of the particular nuggets that he had taken away from the Empathy Conference and back into school, in particular the notion that social media was both a cause and a result of the so-called empathy deficit. During the conference, psychologist Professor Tanya Byron had explored the notion of us (adults/teachers/parents) putting our children into boxes and giving them labels (disengaged, narcissistic, addicted to social media) etc. and not making any effort to go into their space and learn from them or explore what they are doing…thus ironically not exhibiting any empathy ourselves to the lives that our children are leading. This struck a chord with Andrew and colleagues at Norwich School, and he invited a number of Year 9, 10 and 11 pupils to one of the school's staff training days to be interviewed in front of their teachers about their use of social media. By inviting the students into the teachers' space (as it were) and allowing them to take on the role of ‘reverse mentoring’, the teachers were given the opportunity to engage with the world revealed by the pupils, opening a healthy dialogue between teachers and pupils on the issue of social media in a non-judgemental way.

After this exercise, pastoral staff across the school were then encouraged to repeat this exercise in their classrooms with pupils invited to share their favourite apps and how they use them - thus modelling different ways of empathic engagement bridging connections and making relationships stronger. 

Having such discussions between staff and students - through the platform of social media in this case - is just one way that Andrew is exploring to bridge healthy connections within the school, with a clear focus on the need for staff to be modelling empathy in order for students to learn.  He also shared a story of an assembly he delivered to students recently on practising empathy, using the example of a tale from Dr Stephen Covey’s ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’.  In his book, Stephen gives the example of a father and his young children travelling on a busy commuter train. The children are jumping on the seats, running up and down the aisles and generally causing disturbance in the carriage. Other passengers begin to show their annoyance at the noise and one asks the father why he isn’t controlling his children. The father replies that their mother has just died that morning and he simply does not know what is best to do.

Even by listening to that brief tale, we are able ourselves to practice and understand some of the complexities of empathic engagement, non-judgement and compassion, and Andrew allowed this assembly to be a careful example to students of the need to practise compassion first, judgement last.

It was a very interesting meeting with Andrew at Norwich School – a school very much in the heart of the community, and spread out amongst the town - and I left inspired by the work already happening within the community to bridge connections and interested to learn more about the ideas yet to come.  

Rachel MussonComment