Conversations on Empathy: Melissa West (Denefield School)

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.

It is so refreshing when you encounter a school whose vision and ethos place values at the very heart of learning So it is at Denefield School in the outskirts of Reading.

Talking recently with Deputy Head Melissa West, it was inspiring to hear of the changes that have taken place over the past few years within the school to firmly embed value-based learning at the core of the campus, with a growing holistic approach to emotional learning.

The leadership of Denefield understand the importance of having teachers who are compassionate and connected to students’ emotional wellbeing, and know that this compassion lies at the heart of what makes a good teacher – in many ways the academic element is secondary. For if a teacher can truly connect with their students, can empathise and engage with them on many emotional levels, then the learning is given free reign to flourish and to bloom. You can be the best physicist, mathematician, chemist, linguist etc. in the world, but if you don’t know how to connect with your students, you will not make a good teacher.

Denefield dedicates half-days of learning every term to focus on one of their core values – allowing both staff and students to engage in a range of activities and discussion-based learning to practice these values. Their vertical tutor-group format (with 11-16 year olds all within the same tutor group) means that students gain pastoral learning in a more “family-like” setting, with the ability to learn from each other and support each other in different stages of adolescent transition. We talked at length about the benefits of such pastoral models (many of our ThoughtBox schools use similar group dynamics, which work incredibly well for supportive discussions within our curriculum content) and the positive impact this has on children’s emotional growth.

The school has implemented what they are calling Character Awards within the framework – with regular award evenings organised to recognise students across the school who have demonstrated a particular character value, as well as those who have consistently demonstrated a range of positive values within their subject learning.  Each week, staff are given a different character value to look for and support within their students, with nine core focus areas within the school:

  1. Confident - ‘You are confined only by the walls you build yourself’
  2. Happy - ‘Nothing can dim the light that shines from within’
  3. Articulate - ‘Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument’
  4. Resilient - ‘A diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure’
  5. Ambitious - ‘It does not matter how slowly you go, as long as you do not stop’
  6. Courageous - 'Do something uncomfortable today by stepping out of your box.'
  7. Tolerant - ‘You have your way, I have my way. As for the right way and the only way, it does not exist’
  8. Empathetic -  Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.’
  9. Respectful - ‘It’s not about saying the right things, it’s about doing the right things.’

The school firmly promotes the importance of this sort of learning, with several presentation books given pride of place in reception celebrating individual successes. Their aims and objectives proudly state that “The character values form the basis for us to send out in to the world, well-rounded individuals who have the academic qualifications and personal attributes to thrive in modern Britain.”

Other elements within the school such as the ‘Thought of the day’, ‘Character week’, ‘40 acts of kindness’ and community work all combine to allow a thriving and holistic approach to support emotional learning.

We would like to thank Melissa West for taking the time to talk with us and look forward to hopefully supporting the framework at Denefield with our own programmes in the near future.

Rachel MussonComment