How the TVS Academy Teaches Empathy to its Students

On Friday, January 22, the Changemaker Schools Team had a fabulous visit to the TVS Academy in Hosur! We met with Principal, Vidya Akka, or ‘Akka’ to the students, to discuss some of her theories on child development and what the school’s philosophy is on the purpose of education and how Empathy fits into it. Later on, we also got an opportunity to tour the campus and see learning in action. 

While the discussions highlighted many interesting stories and creative approaches to learning, three examples of teaching empathy stuck out to me: theater, physical engagement with their biological world, and responsible consumption habits.

The first example came out through the story of a young girl who had just been identified as dyslexic. While she had been struggling for some time with some of her academic subjects, she had recently discovered her talent lay in theater- her passion went so deep that she was able to memorize her lines in Tamil (not native to her) and execute them perfectly on stage. Many of the plays she was involved in were designed to reach out to the wider community, covering themes such as farming, problem solving, or positive relationships. After returning from a street play where the students had to act as if they were animals seeing people for the first time (putting one’s self in another’s shoes), she quickly ran back to Akka and said she may have identified a younger student with her same problem (being sensitive to the needs of those around you). Because of this young girls’ keen sensitivity to another’s struggles and her conscious decision to act, she was able to get early intervention for her.

The second example was engaging students in their outside environment. The TVS campus has a very active ecology with dozens of plant species ranging from trees to flowers to common crops scattered through the playgrounds and pathways (each labeled with its scientific name). If you pay close attention and are lucky enough, you could also discover a vibrant array of moths, insects, frogs, snakes and other creepy-crawlies. This lush eco-system however, is a conscious development within the school and isn’t there just for admiration; it also holds a deeper purpose for the staff and students at TVS: a chance for up-close and hands-on learning of the importance caring for the environment. 

  

The idea of not harming that which is around you is repeatedly reinforced with the children- they are encouraged to smell, photograph and appreciate the flowers/plants, but are not permitted to pluck/break/damage anything; similarly, despite the occasional visit by poisonous snakes, they have strict protocols of not harming/ killing/ poisoning any living thing: all potentially dangerous animals are therefore caught (carefully!) and released outside of the campus. Finally, from the age of 3, all children are regularly involved in farming and learning how to grow plants from seeds. The students have become so in-tuned with their biological environment, in fact, that recently when a nearby road was expanded, uprooting upwards of 125 trees on their property, students were so upset by this loss that the school started an initiative which introduced 1,00,000 trees into the local community- some of which are rare species (this initiative has since stuck, and is acting as a local tree-bank). This story is a good example of the process of Empathy based action- from learning to respect one’s surroundings, to identifying problems which another being may experience, to finally consciously choosing to act in order to solve the problem.

The third example ties closely to the second of teaching children to be sensitive to the environment: teaching them to adopt responsible consumption habits. The idea of recycling and trying to be waste-free isn’t a new concept within many school campuses; however, TVS has taken this a step further by actively involving the children in this process. For example, while the school recycles paper-waste, it also has an onsite paper-maker, ensuring that no paper ever leaves the campus as trash. Every day, one class is engaged in some aspect of recycling the paper- from mulching, to mixing, to turning it into various products. They even use their own paper to make files and folders used within the classroom. And in their art classes they often employ up-cycling activities (see pictures). Beyond this, the campus is also plastic-bag free and does not allow packaged or processed foods, teaching students to be conscious about what their consumption does to the environment and their health.

Overall, the mindset adopted by the teachers at TVS is that consistency and communication are the keys to teaching empathy, be it through setting rules/norms, building relationships with the students, or designing activities in and around the classroom. Without consistency, internally adopting empathy may be viewed as a voluntary choice. Similarly, without involving children in discussions of why certain things are being done a certain way, they may not see the full value and scope of its impact, and therefore choose to show empathy only when it is convenient; whereas, ideally, empathy should be considered an essential personal trait which is used in all our interactions.  

When asked how she knows her approach works in instilling a strong sense of empathy for the rest of a young persons’ life, Vidya Akka said that it is only when a student willingly acts with empathy towards others that you truly know the method is a success.

 

Thank you TVS and Vidya Akka for a lovely visit to your school. We look forward to more meetings and hearing more about what you are doing with your students!