Counselling for Teachers pt.1

Reading this Secret Teacher article reminded me how similar counselling and teaching can be. Some of the most important parts of a teacher's role - parts for which we're generally not very well trained - are closer to counselling than they are to teaching.

For one thing, counselling and teaching are both based, fundamentally, on the ability to form a relationship, and on understanding the emotional and intellectual world of another person (or another 30 people). Although the aims and means of counselling and teaching are different, the relationship-building process is fundamentally the same, as are the skills of empathising with someone else's perspective.

For another, teachers are required to deal with mental health issues, group dynamics, attachment styles, life-stage transitions, self-esteem, and a whole plethora of relationship problems. Again, these are part of the job, but often a part that we're not particularly well trained to engage with.

At Teaching with Heart we have been working in schools to enable some of the reflective space that counsellors routinely use in supervision. But we thought it might also be useful to share some of the counselling skills and knowledge which might enrich teachers' practice, starting today with some thoughts about active listening. 

Counselling skills - active listening

In your average counselling 101 course, the first thing you'll likely learn about is active listening. It's fundamental to establishing contact between counsellor and client. Without it there will be no relationship, poor communication, and little if any progress. 

So what is it? Well, it's something we all already do, to a greater or lesser extent. Some elements of active listening are:

  • making eye contact, and being available for eye contact when the student wants to make it;
  • letting go of prior plans / agendas, and listening for the student's agenda;
  • ignoring the desire to fill silences or suggest solutions before the student has fully expressed their understanding of their situation;
  • using body language to demonstrate positive intent:
    • nodding,
    • short non-intrusive responses - "mm-hmm", "I see", "yes" etc,
    • head slightly tilted,
    • facial expression that mirror those of the student (joining in with the joy or pain they are expressing, if this is appropriate), 
    • sitting / standing in an alert, open posture,
    • avoiding fidgeting or other distractions,
  • mirroring back to the student what they have said ("you feel sad because of what Jack said");
  • paraphrasing what the student has said in your own words ("it's the second time this has happened with Jack and you're feeling hurt and let down");
  • checking in with the student to make sure you understand ("so if I've got it right, you feel like Jack is deliberately letting you down because he feels he can. Is that right?");
  • listening with all of your body - noticing feelings and sensations which you may be picking up from the client. For example, your growing anxiety may reflect a similar anxiety in your student.

What bearing do these have on the teacher's daily life?

Well, like I said, we'll all do this to a greater or lesser extent in our daily interactions already, but it's amazing how effective it can be to actively switch on some of these behaviours. Often we are so used to 'being a teacher' that our teacher-responses come naturally, and, more often than not, these embody authority, control and decisiveness. For the majority of the school day this is right and proper - as teachers we are  in control and in charge; it would be a dereliction of our duty to do otherwise.

We can't be active listeners all day, but occasionally it can be really powerful to switch from that hierarchical, authoritative voice into a more level, open voice, which makes space for the student to communicate what needs to be communicated - on their terms, not just ours. One way of thinking about it is that the vast majority of the day students have to play by our rules, but by taking some time to switch the rules and let them communicate in their way, we make a space for something new and creative to emerge.

As a teacher I found this switch quite difficult to achieve - in the middle of a difficult lesson, dropping my guard and moving into a more sensitive relational space was just not available to me. It felt too risky to really engage with a child's idiosyncratic demands when 29 other children needed boundaries and direction.

But finding the spaces throughout the day when this could happen provided both me and my students with much-needed moments of contact. One of the first things I put in place in my student year was changing the scheduled 10 minutes after-lunch quiet reading my class were required to do (which was often fraught with post-playground aggro) into 10 minutes of quiet conversation, when students could chat with each other or with me, if they wanted. Timetabling this time helped me to justify switching from the authoritative teacher voice for a period, and taught me important lessons about the children I taught.

Other times I found I was listening actively, on the child's level and according to their agenda, were:

  • first thing, before the register (often with parents involved too),
  • play times,
  • PPA (this was really powerful - just spending 10 minutes chatting with a child I'd been struggling with was often enough to change the relationship); and during those tasks which don't require a full mind of attention (practical tasks, some creative activities, tidying up). 

It's not easy to find these times. One of the reasons I left full-time teaching was that there weren't enough of these moments of relational contact in my day. But as Dewey wrote, way back in the 1930s:

“every pupil must have a chance to show what he truly is, so that the teacher can find out what he needs to make him a complete human being”

Making students 'complete human beings' may sound like a woolly aspiration, but there's a hard side to it too: improving the relationship is the best way to improve attainment. Those moments when a child just doesn't get it, are moments of relational/communication breakdown. Often we can overcome these by reteaching or reexplaining, but without the other side - without being able to hear from the child what's going on for them - we'll be missing a key part of the picture. 

Alongside addressing misconceptions, active listening is a great starting place to deal with more difficult processes, like relationship issues or unmanageable emotions. And further, it embodies an attitude towards the child that says "I value you for what you are, on your own terms, not just on mine".

In our next post in this series we'll begin to look at some of these more difficult processes, and at the shared values that underpin counselling and teaching.