similarities between teaching and psychotherapy

True confession time: I’m a bit of a mystic. Not in the sense that I believe in things unseen but in the sense that I see things that are so subtle they define observation in the usual sense or quantification.

When I was a counselor I decided to get my advanced degree in counseling. There, in that school, I found a coterie of professors determined to sensitize us to the subtle dynamics of change in human beings. We were to foster change, not direct it. We were to trust to humans’ best instincts for the good.

That put us in conflict with some religions, but a number of us were clergy or had theological training and that helped meld the psychological and the spiritual. Those were very good times and, while I have absolutely loved delving into second language acquisition and applied linguistics, I must say that nothing has been quite so heady as those times when we believed we could bring a better and richer life to people

I became a psychotherapist in a large mental health center. For ten years I practiced there. What I noticed when I made the jump to teaching is how similar the skills of a good counselor were to those of a good teacher. The ability to extract yourself from a situation when you are a disruptive element; the ability to observe without judgment; the focus on the present with an almost martial arts-like detachment from your own actions: no thought, just act. Anyone who has practiced martial arts knows that such ’no-thought’ action requires a great deal of preparation.

I’ve had to more than once explain to teacher colleagues that some of the things I do came out of many years of intense group therapy, training in Gestalt techniques, neuro-linguistic programming, the pragmatics of human communication (Watzlawick et al.), and so on. But most of all, Carl Rogers’ techniques.

But the “secret” stuff came out of Milton Erickson. I might call this “indirect therapy”; it is sometimes called “waiting-room therapy” b/c so much can be done just by interrupting and redirecting set patterns of thought and action in an individual or a family or a work team. This could even work with behaviorists; in fact, behaviorists frequently reinforced desired behavior in their clients/patients without telling them they were doing so.

This sort of therapy leaves the client/patient with the impression nothing is happening and, in fact, they sometimes say, “I’m going to stop coming b/c I’m doing fine and you don’t really do anything anyway.”

So in the classroom, I see teachers who may not even be aware of what they are doing but they have a way of walking around the room (remember HP’s management by walking around?), interrupting a budding disruption by an innocuous comment; giving an assignment toward the end of class in a low voice to bring home the point that you must LISTEN; smiling to disarm a hostile student; and so on.

There are books on this but I haven’t read many of them. What worries me is the books that purport to present formulas for classroom management. Doesn’t that beg the question of whether we should be managing students? To what end? So they are all “on the same page”? Can you imagine me in a fl class being on the same page as other students? Can you imagine me in a math class being on the same page as others? That makes no sense.

And there are teachers who get this in their gut. They may not be able to articulate it, but they get it…. and they do it. And it’s going to be different for every teacher b/c every teacher is a different person. What someone else can do I can’t ; what works for me might not work for someone else. Some of us are hams and some of us are reclusive scholarly types; some are out-going and athletic and others are a bit shy and diffident. You’ve got to make it work for you.

And one testimony to that is the way the neuro-linguistic program folks developed their techniques: they simply observed therapists who had a good track record and ignored what the therapists SAID they did and simply observed what they actually did and compiled the commonalities.

Does anyone know of a book on teaching that does that?

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