Are you listening to me? Active Listening and Empathy in the Classroom


Alma Jeftić, PhD (ABD)

Department of Psychology/University of Belgrade, Centre for Southeast European Studies/University of Graz

_“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels. I myself become the wounded person.” _

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

From 18th-19th December 2018 in the premises of the Fourth Primary School in Mostar, TPO Foundation (member of project consortia) organised workshops for forty teachers, educators and psychologists from Herzegovina region. Workshops were organised with the help of Ministry of Education, Science, Culture and Sport of Herzegovina Canton, whose representatives actively participated during both events.

Teaching in primary school is stressful. However, teaching in primary school in post-conflict country is a challenge by itself. Being surrounded by 40 teachers, school psychologists and pedagogues I understood that their working hours begin in the classroom but continue throughout the day. It was by no surprise for me that the anti-stress program was the first thing they asked for. Because they are under the stress. Because of pupils, their parents, social workers, sometimes because of the school management, and sometimes – because of themselves.

Mentioning “hard topic” (to put it into their words) of war, trauma and its transmission was not very well accepted. At least not at the very beginning. Later, their wounds were opened. Sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. But each time - because of the same cause: war and its consequences.

It was interesting to explore different types of words and their meanings with them. While working in pairs and trying to actively listen the explanations of their colleague, they were very patient and meticulous. By the end they concluded that defining words such as victim, perpetrator, bystander, peace, justice etc., was easy due to one reason – such words were not presented in any context at the first place. However, when they tried to put them into context of the last war, they reported problems in communication. Not in a way that they could not agree – rather in a way that they could not verbalise what they felt and experienced at the moment. Opening these topics was not easy – some teacher complained that we were supposed to follow the program and the active listening theme. Their desire to hear the pure lecture on empathy and active listening can be described by one thing – avoidance and fear of encountering their own traumas.

Most interesting thing was that younger teachers and pedagogues reported more problems related to their own traumas, but also reported a lot of problems related to pupils who suffer from attention deficit disorder with/without hyperactivity.

“We have such problems more than it was reported before, and that is all happening due to the lack of communication on the level parent-child. Also, parents are those who survived the war, we as teachers are those who survived the war, therefore our ability to both deal with such topics in the classroom and to address such themes is very limited”.

Empathy is the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does (Bloom, 2016, 16). However, it seems that those who experienced the horror are currently having troubles to deal with their own memories and traumas, but also to discover them in other people. In a speech before he became president, Barack Obama described how empathy can be a choice and stressed the importance of seeing the world through the eyes of those who are different from us. In psychology and neuroscience empathy is one of the most frequently mentioned topics; however, whether we all know how, when, and to which extent to express it is completely different theme.

“Too much empathy is not good.”

Those words were told by one of the teachers who did not act as Bloom’s fan but mostly as someone who understood the importance of connection between active listening and perspective taking. While working in two groups, I had to organise two separate debates with two different topics: “Multiperspectivity in history teaching: pro and cons” and “Parents should/should not talk to their children about 1992-1995 war”. Even though debate is one of the commonly used methods in experiential teaching, it was very interesting for me to watch these teachers using well structured arguments and showing respect towards the “opposing” group. These simulations went much better than I expected and brought not only understanding of the importance of active listening and perspective taking – but a lot of fun and joy to everybody.

“We were talking about trauma during the whole workshop, but all the time we were ready to laugh and have fun over these small games and activities.”

Being traumatised by war and its consequences, being overburdened by workload and administrative things, being overwhelmed by pupils and their parents – these teachers needed to talk and laugh together, but also to learn from each other. As much as they learned during these games, I learned more. As a conclusion from all interactive games we had I can add the following:

“When talking to pupils about the war, and/or when dealing with their own problems/questions/curiosities, we as teachers have to listen very carefully and to understand the most important thing – each answer has to be adjusted to the child’s ear, not to the nationalist’s ear.”

DEBATE is one of methods of experiential learning. When a teacher uses the debate as a framework for learning, s/he hopes to get students to conduct comprehensive research into the topic, gather supporting evidence, engage in collaborative learning, delegate tasks, improve communication skills, and develop leadership and team-skills—all at one go. Debate is also commonly used to practice active listening and argument building. It can, to the certain extent, engage its participants into perspective taking and understanding the position of Other.