Reflecting on Teaching & Elections

The Canadian federal election took place on Monday October 21st. This post is an offering in the form of a reflection.

Tune in next time for Part II from Joanne Tompkins!

I wake up groggily.

My body urges me to hang onto sleep. But, my mind has other plans: I need to check my phone. I flop my arm out toward my nightstand, instinctively thumb my way to the interwebs, and pry my eyes open so that I can read the news. Nothing has changed in the time since I fell asleep: the Liberal Party of Canada won the most seats in the 2019 federal election and will seek to form a minority government.

Elections Canada

I spend the next forty-five minutes in a daze, scrolling through news and my social media feed. There is no lack of potentially unsettling items – election commentary, the popularity of the hashtag #weexit, signalling a surge of interest in Alberta’s separatist movement – but mostly I feel relieved that I didn’t wake up in an alternate reality where the balance of governmental power swung to the far right. It’s a low bar, but in the context of western politics this year, it nevertheless earns a sigh of relief from me.

Despite my relief, I’m grateful I’m not in a classroom today, an indirect result of teaching during the 2016 American election.

As you may remember, in the fall of 2016, Donald Trump ran against Hilary Clinton in the American federal election.

That same fall, I taught my first university course as an instructor. I was teaching an upper level theatre and performance theory class.

I’m largely proud of the pedagogical work I did in that class. Behind the scenes, however, it was what I would politely refer to as a shitshow. I was figuring out the online learning system and the specific potentials and constraints of the classroom space; I was doing huge amounts of prep work; I was playing with my style as an instructor; I was writing my dissertation prospectus; I was completing articles, and I was doing all of this while caring  for my mother who was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer (I should say here: while she still has the routine tests, she’s currently healthy and there have been no signs of cancer since she finished treatment in 2017). It was, in short, not the easiest autumn for me.

Then, about three weeks into semester, I realized something: I’d scheduled my feminist theory class for the day after the American election.

Oh boy.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t do that on purpose, but it mattered that I hadn’t. And, it mattered, in particular, that semester. As November approached and the campaign filled the ether, I kept looking at my syllabus. There was no way that topic on that day was not going to be a thing.

Feminism & Theatre

Six weeks later, I was proven right.

Generally speaking, I’m a pretty emotionally even-keeled human. But, the results of the American election – wherein Donald Trump, after a vitriolic, racist, misogynistic, ableist, xenophobic, islamaphobic (to name a few of the plethora of “ists” that might be included here) campaign, became president of the United States of America – intersected with the challenges of my personal life and shook me. I cried most of the 45-minute drive to campus.

And, then, as teachers do, I pulled myself together, walked into class, and looked completely normal.

Things were not normal, however.

Even though I was teaching in Canada, I could see that the election results had significantly affected many of the students. They looked tired; their shoulders were slumped; their expressions were solemn, sad even. And yet, there they were, in their theatre and theory class at 10 in the morning, looking at me.

I could feel the teaching moment open-up in front of me: the next 80 minutes could be a lesson that bridged the classroom with the world, that created space for the plethora of student experiences (including those that were ambivalent or happy about the election results), and that prompted genuine dialogue.

Opening

And, just as quickly, I knew that I couldn’t capitalize on that opening. I was too new as an instructor and too personally exhausted.  I performed my lesson plan, and it went fine. But, it wasn’t transformational. It wasn’t even particularly good. It was just a lesson.

I know that many postsecondary teachers see elections as opportunities to generate dialogue or to meaningfully connect the classroom to the world at large. I respect that a great deal.

As an early carer instructor, however, elections have often felt like elastic bands around my teaching practice. The opportunity of the added tension is palpable but so are its constraints:

How do I capitalize on the increased political awareness that tends to accompany elections?

How do I encourage inclusive, respectful, dialogue?

How and to what degree do I perform my own political values?

How do I balance all of these questions in relation to my role as a contract instructor, in a workplace where many of my colleagues have positions that grant them more job stability, and by consequence, more room for error and conflict?

I don’t have the answers to these questions but I offer them, and my election reflections, as a gesture to the other teachers who don’t either.

Sometimes, we don’t, or can’t, capitalize on teaching moments. And, that’s okay. Others will come along.

In my case, I hear another federal election cycle is on the horizon in the United States. As you can imagine, I can hardly wait.

Teaching Transformation: Educating therapists in a relational context

When I went to school as a child and then as a young adult, I never thought of school as anything other than a place you learned things. I learned to do some chemistry, I learned about philosophy, I learned about feminism. Yet I didn’t become any of those things through my learning, at least not in a way I noticed.

After a few years of trying to be a lawyer after I learned how to do it, my great dissatisfaction with that process led me to a place where 1. I had a mental breakdown and 2. I needed to figure out what was next, because I clearly had not learned to be a lawyer, even though I knew how to do it.

Thanks to https://morguefile.com/creative/jim113/1/all for the photo

I wandered around in the wilderness for a year or so and then found something that looked promising. It was a tiny private psychotherapy training program and now, 19 years later, I’m a teacher in that program. In that school, I had a very alternative experience of learning a thing. I didn’t learn about it. I learned to become it and I did that through performing it, from the very first day.

So, when Kelsey approached me to contribute to this blog and I saw the blurbs meant to be the seeds of blossoming blog entries to come, I nearly jumped out of my skin to say yes to this project.

I am not an academic in the traditional sense. I have lots of education and more than a few degrees, none of which ever formally taught me to teach. I source my skill in the classroom from, amongst other things, my passionate belief in the power of the work I do.[1]

The ideas that I discuss here may or may not reside in the academic literature as a methodology or approach and I will freely admit I wouldn’t know. However, I also know there is value in the sort of “from the ground up” perspective I’m bringing here and I know that is one of the goals of bringing more voices into this forum.

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Professional learning can be a very passive experience. After all, the idea of professional education involves making sure that students acquire a set of knowledge and skill that meets a “universal standard” within some sort of regulatory frame. Universal standards are often codified by way of content or a practical skill and the way a student demonstrates them is through testing or performing a task.

Those elements are all present in my teaching. We ask students to read material and demonstrate the understanding of it through engagement in writing and discussion. We also ask them to practice in front of their teachers and peers through exercises and practice therapy dyads. Yet, I’m also aware that we do something else with these students in the way we are teaching them, something more profound than a knowledge and skill acquisition endeavour. It’s this element that I want to explore here.

My first question to myself is:

How do I even know this is different than other kinds of teaching or professional education?

I suppose I can answer that because I’ve done quite a bit of other kinds and nothing ever felt like this to me. I can also observe that I was asked to come teach this thing most profoundly on the basis that, in my every day work and life, I was the thing that I was being asked to teach. I want to highlight this simple language I’m using. I was asked because I “was the thing”, not because “I knew how to do the thing”.

Let me explain the “thing” a little more.

The approach we teach is a modality of psychotherapy but it isn’t really a technique, as narrowly understood. I like to tell my students that it’s a “sensibility” or a “way of being” in session that generates the conditions that allow for healing and growth.

Ideally, we create a therapeutic container in which a client feels safe, connected, emotionally regulated and profoundly understood. In that sort of relationship, stalled developmental processes reengage and all manner of things (symptoms, patterns, awareness, relational skill) improve.

So, I am tasked with somehow getting my students to a place where they can be the kind of person who can skillfully provide that kind of environment. Not only that, I want them to know how to handle what comes up when that environment is difficult for the client to create, maintain or tolerate. That is HARD. It would be extra hard if all we did was read books about it and write papers tests on it and then try to do it with only some vague notion of “active listening” and not a lot else.[2]

The question is: How do we do it? 

The answer? By “being the thing”.

Foundationally, we try engage all of our students as authentically connected and caring human beings. Our students are in a set of complex processes. These processes include not only the professional education they are engaged in but also their lives, relationships and histories outside school. We assume and invite them to impact and be impacted by our process.

Likewise, the facilitators are in process, impacted by the relationships within the teaching environment and our own lives and histories. We are constantly aware and mindful of how we leverage all of this into the transformative work of becoming a therapist. Becoming a therapist and being a client are parallel processes in this model.

For example, in a relational therapy, a client can eventually come to expect that their therapist will consistently provide feedback that evidences that therapist’s profound understanding of the client’s subjective state. This is the core experience that allows for the reactivation of developmental processes. Sometimes, the therapist doesn’t get it right and sometimes that results in a retraumatizing experience for the client, complete with a raft of negative emotions, angry outbursts and hurt feelings.

When this happens, it is the therapist’s job to untangle the interaction in a manner that conveys an understanding of how it happened, the therapist’s own role in the relational “miss” and also, if possible, to deepen the client’s understanding of how their implicit relational knowings (developed early in life) contribute to the intensity of hurt and dysregulation. This is a delicate dance that somehow conveys acceptance and understanding while encouraging re-evaluation of old ways of being and promoting affect integration and regulation.

Similarly, students have an expectation of being held in this program a certain way, even if it is only at the level of “teach me the things I need to know”. Inevitably, we fail them somehow and, in those moments, we are challenged to acknowledge, repair and deepen our understanding of the relational event that precipitated their disappointment.

Susan Tarhish

Susan Tarshis

We try very hard not to hide behind institutional systems of defense and deflection but rather invite the issues into process so that we can resolve them in a relationally sound way. By that I mean a way that promotes feelings of security, growth, deepening connection and community.

If all that sounds like a lot of work, well, you are darn right it is. Why would anyone ever agree to teach with those kinds of really intimate demands for relational engagement, with a student body of nearly 40 people?

My gut answer is that it is the most important job in the world because it’s teaching people to go out and do one of the most important jobs in this world. I am not even talking about the job of being a Registered Psychotherapist in the province of Ontario. I’m talking about going out in the world knowing how to skillfully navigate your relational environment in a way that feeds healthy community. I’m talking about “being the thing”.

Maybe this is sounding profoundly arrogant, that I not only teach people to be good therapists but also help them to be better people.

Yet, I’ll stand my ground on that one. I KNOW I am a better, more skilled, more able, more open, more resilient human in relationship because of the work I did in this program.

When our students graduate, most of them (certainly not all of them) speak to the profound change, including turmoil, that the training brought to their lives. They speak to the complicating of their emotional and relational landscape and their gratitude and wonder at the transition they have made.

It’s not perfect. It’s messy and sometimes it even hurts but teaching this way is one of the most impactful things I have done with my life thus far. I’m pretty sure that’s a definition of an “Activist Classroom”.

[1] The thoughts I’ve put together here are based on my experience and not meant to be the official position or methodology of the school.

[2] I will confess this may have been my experience in the more academically formal environment in which I got my University education in counselling.