Character, Empathy and Integrity.
At the end of September 2022 I was asked to deliver a new session at my old school…a school I left in 1985 with terrible results, under a cloud and with a ‘to whom it may concern’ reference which made the point that my grades in my two A levels were not a reflection of my intelligence and potential, rather the result of an aggressive campaign of dumbing myself down to fit in with the right peers.
The SLT member in charge of PSHE and personal development asked me in March to put together a session for students based on what made someone’s character, what built their interpersonal skills and what helped to form their personality in a positive and healthy way.
The sessions were delivered for the full Year 7, 9 and 11 groups – around 180 boys in each session – and were a mix of presentation and interaction – with a number of sections dedicated to discussing the topics shared and the feeding back their findings.
Building on the work of a student-led Character Group we opened with discussion of the importance of various elements of character – including empathy, kindness and supportive masculinity – and which blend was most powerful and why. With no real ‘correct’ answer, this provoked important debate and discussions in the groups.
Asking ‘what does character mean to you’ garnered some interesting responses:
- Doing the right thing
- Taking responsibility
- Forgiving people
- Admitting you’re wrong
- Coming Out
And my favourite…
- The virtues you live by.
We moved to discussing the power of words and how they can be used to demean and hurt someone…when had they felt upset by words, who said them, when and how did it make them feel? Feedback was bravely shared and many students talked about how throwaway comments have been directed at them about their sexuality, their appearance, their race and their academic / sporting performances.
Referring to this, we were able to show how empathy can help to see people who are different from ourselves and potentially reduce harmful words and approaches directed at others. With more empathy, better understanding can be built and harms can be avoided…I believe empathy is one of the most crucial building-blocks of society and the young men at my Alma Mater were showing me that they did too.
Moving on to the media, a number of newspaper headlines were shared showing tabloid front pages regarding people claiming benefits, refugees arriving at the shores of the UK in boats and being called ‘illegal migrants’ and also splashes and headlines comparing different members of the Royal family being treated very differently over the same issues. Students responded vocally to the unfair labelling used and the way hate is used on a daily basis to divide people and create scapegoats of different groups of citizens…a powerful insight into how opinions are used to create unhelpful thinking and reduce empathy.
Finally we brought the thoughts together and asked each group “When do we get the chances to act, speak-out or show kindness and bravery?” and again a debate ensued with lively interactions and a deep understanding of how to display character and ranged from when they saw bullying, when they saw social media trolling and when they saw harassment of any kind. Asking for help, reporting incidents to teachers or adults and having a quiet word with a friend about their behaviour were all examples of how they boys thought they could show character.
In a world that tries to divide, blame and isolate people from one another, our sessions at my old school proved to me that with a dedicated approach, our young men can move towards being empathetic, supportive and kind as they move towards adulthood.